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A Peephole Into French Corruption, US-Style


DURING a trial that ends today, once-flashy French tycoon Pierre Botton has stood in a neoclassical courtroom and revealed much about 1980s corruption in France.

Mr. Botton has been tried for spending $6.4 million to buy influence. The scandal could destroy the careers of France's most famous TV anchor, the mayors of Lyon and Cannes, and a former president's nephew. They are all charged with involvement in Botton's allegedly fraudulent schemes or taking money from him.

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As with the O.J. Simpson case in the United States, millions of people across France are riveted to every racy detail. It is the first corruption trial of such scale in France since World War II.

Observers describe this trial and the ones that will follow it as the trial of politics and business '' la americaine.'' As the justice correspondent of a local paper, Rene Raffin, says, ''Money was easy. The law didn't count, and politicians could be marketed like bars of soap or cans of peas.''

The case is just the first of many such trials expected in coming months in France. Stricter laws and tougher judges have unleashed a nationwide crackdown on corruption that brings Italy's notorious cases to mind.

Botton has little to lose by spreading the guilt around. He openly says he bankrolled the political career of Lyon Mayor Michel Noir.

Explaining his actions to the judge, he said, ''You have to remember the context. It was the 1980s. Businesses were bought and sold with lightning speed. Banks loaned money over the telephone.''

The judge picked through invoice after invoice detailing the tangled web of Botton's firms, mainly marketing or consulting companies whose only clients were other companies owned by Botton. When he began to ask about the core company, Vivien, the businessman counterattacked: ''Vivien was a real company, with a real product,'' he insisted. ''Otherwise it couldn't have financed the political activities of Michel Noir.''

For citizens of Lyon -- and elsewhere -- this is the heart of the case: If the judges accept Botton's claim that he bankrolled the astonishing rise of the man who became their mayor, Mr. Noir will be convicted and his career sunk. With municipal elections due in June, voters are perplexed over what to do.

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Once a Cabinet member and potential presidential hopeful, Noir typifies a group of whiz-kid politicians who came of age in the free-wheeling '80s. Other members of the club, Former Communication Minister and Grenoble Mayor Alain Carignon and former Industry Minister Gerard Longuet, are currently under indictment. The French are finding to their shock that many of their impressive young leaders -- official or private -- have set up schemes to finance their careers or line their pockets.

Called to the bar three days later to explain his friendship with Botton, Noir denied all charges that he had knowingly accepted gifts from the businessman, who is also his son-in-law. (The two men no longer speak to each other.)

BUT when the judge confronted him with an invoice-by-invoice list of gifts he allegedly received -- including travel on private airplanes, expensive lunches for his staff, suits worth tens of thousands of dollars, and cello lessons -- Noir was not very convincing. ''I had no idea that came off Botton's balance sheet,'' he said. ''A minister doesn't have time to bother with day-to-day details.''

Sitting on a plastic chair in the now-empty offices of his holding company, 3-B Holding, Botton tries to explain his actions in an exclusive interview with the Monitor. ''It was the '80s,'' he says. ''Things were crazy, and I went crazy, too. I forgot everything, everything my mother and father taught me.''

The trial is emotionally difficult, he says, because it forces him back to something he says he's left. ''I don't like who I was. When I think back on all that, all those people who ate at my table, I want to close my eyes and forget it.''

By admitting his guilt, Botton has ruined his career. He has already spent five months in jail. But a number of his codefendants, such as Noir, are fighting for their professional lives: The mayor of Cannes accepted more than $100,000 in fictitious salary payments; TV anchorman Patrick Poivre d'Arvor allowed Botton to pay for dozens of lavish vacations.

In a harshly worded argument Tuesday night, the public prosecutor requested a sentence of four years' imprisonment and a $392,000 fine against Botton. In addition, he asked for an 18 months' suspended sentence, a $3,920 fine, and deprivation of civil rights -- no voting or holding of office -- for the two mayors and TV anchorman. Closing arguments are scheduled to end today, and the verdict is due in a month.

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