- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

PARIS — A bugging scandal dubbed the “French Watergate” is finally coming to court today, more than two decades after President Francois Mitterrand ordered taps on the telephone lines of hundreds of French personalities.

Twelve of the late president’s closest aides face charges of violation of privacy amid accusations that they monitored conversations to prevent damaging facts about his private life from reaching the public.

The trial follows an investigation marked by a suspicious death and anonymous tip-offs. On trial are Gilles Menage, Mr. Mitterrand’s principal private secretary at the time, and the principal private secretaries to two of his prime ministers — one of whom, Louis Schweitzer, is now the head of automaker Renault. Another key defendant is Christian Prouteau, the former head of the GIGN anti-terrorist force.

The telephone bugs at the presidential Elysee Palace were used in the 1980s by an anti-terrorist unit, which was created after the bombing of a Jewish district in Paris. When it was formed, Mr. Mitterrand said its task was to “fight terrorism.”

But the prosecution says the unit spent most of its time ensuring that the French public was kept in the dark about the president’s extramarital affair with Anne Pingeot, which produced daughter Mazarine, now 29.

The unit eavesdropped on an array of prominent people from 1983 to 1986, recording more than 3,000 conversations. Many of the notes bear the word “Seen” in the president’s handwriting. Attorneys of 30 of those cited in the unit’s reports will be present today.

The man who came under the closest scrutiny was Jean-Edern Hallier, a writer and former confidant of Mr. Mitterrand who reportedly had been disgruntled at not receiving a plum post in his administration.

Mr. Hallier’s every move was noted after he voiced plans to publish a book on the president’s flamboyant private life, called “Tonton and Mazarine — or the lost honor of Francois Mitterrand.” “Tonton,” which means uncle, was Mr. Mitterrand’s nickname.

When Mr. Hallier threatened to talk about the book on television, the unit had the show axed. Nowhere was he safe from presidential ears: His concierge, his local cafe, his publisher and his relatives were all tapped. He died in 1997.

The president’s other main cause for concern was Edwy Plenel, the current editor in chief of Le Monde newspaper and an investigative journalist at the time.

Mr. Plenel uncovered a major scandal in the 1980s involving the arrest of three suspected Irish terrorists in Vincennes, a Paris suburb. Mr. Plenel discovered that the charges had been fabricated to improve France’s anti-terror image.

Perhaps the most intriguing was the bugging of the actress Carole Bouquet. For several weeks in 1985, the president took an intense interest in the phone conversations of the former Chanel model and wife of the actor Gerard Depardieu.

One theory is that Mr. Mitterrand simply wanted to learn more about the young star.

“If so, then we are leaving behind the century of the Sun King for that of Louis XVIII, who received every evening his police minister to catch up on the latest gallant adventures of Paris,” said a counterintelligence analyst quoted in L’Express magazine.

Not all the accusations are so lighthearted. In one note, Mr. Prouteau says his team has found a troublesome former bodyguard of National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in Paraguay.

He suggests arresting the man, Dominique Erulin, but offers sinister alternatives.

“If you think that this is not opportune or that it would be preferable to neutralize the man, your wish will be carried out,” the note says.

The phone tapping caused a scandal when it was exposed in 1993, but it failed to derail Mr. Mitterrand, then still in office.

That the case has reached the courts is testament to Jean-Paul Valat, the investigating magistrate, who has battled successive administrations who hid behind the need to keep “state secrets.”

In 1994, the judge was barred access to an internal report. Then, three days after he ordered an investigation of the man responsible for keeping the records of the tapped calls, the man was found hanged.

Two months later, the judge received an anonymous package containing five computer disks filled with details about who had been bugged. Mr. Menage and Mr. Prouteau have admitted to overseeing some tapping, but argued that they only had been obeying orders.

If convicted, the accused face fines and up to one year in jail. The trial is expected to last three months.

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