Elf's former top managers stand trial for embezzling millions in the 1990s

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ONE of France’s biggest ever corruption trials opened in Paris yesterday. Thirty-seven people face charges of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from the formerly state-owned oil company Elf, as part of a vast network of government-sponsored sleaze.

The trial, which is the result of eight years of investigation, is expected to last four months, and will examine the murky financial activities surrounding myriad bank accounts with poetic names such as Langouste (Lobster), Tomate, Mineral, Plazza, Colette, Lille and Miou.

The backdrop to the trial involves the bribery of African governments, the funding of French political parties, and the alleged funnelling of funds via Elf to the then German chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

The suspects, who include Elf’s top managers in the early 1990s, are suspected of lining their own pockets with money from the massive commissions that were systematically paid out to certain African leaders and influential middlemen in order to secure contracts. Among them are Loik Le Floch-Prigent, 59, the former Elf president from July 1989 to August 1993, his number two, Alfred Sirven, 76 and Andr Tarallo, 75, the former director general and the company’s so-called "Mr Africa". All face prison sentences of up to ten years on corruption charges.

Yesterday, Mr Le Floch-Prigent, who is already serving a prison sentence after being convicted in the related trial of the former foreign minister, Roland Dumas, refused to leave Fresnes prison saying he was ill.

Mr Le Floch-Prigent has denied being aware of the commissions which were paid while he was president of Elf.

The court will hear how a system of officially sanctioned influence-buying allowed successive French governments to use Elf almost as an arm of foreign policy, especially in Africa. Billions of francs were paid out in bribes and commissions, including, it is alleged, to well-known African leaders. Some of the money also allegedly permitted the company’s senior executives to enjoy a sumptuous lifestyle.