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Wednesday, 17 January, 2001, 18:17 GMT
Mitterrand's legacy dogged by scandal
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand after his mother paid bail

By James Coomarasamy

A mother posts bail for her imprisoned son and proclaims his innocence.

Under normal circumstances, this would hardly be classed as an unusual event. But in this case, the woman is Danielle Mitterrand, France's former first lady.

Her eldest son, Jean-Christophe, spent Christmas and New Year in jail, charged with complicity in the illegal traffic of arms and abuse of power.

The bail was a sum of five million francs ($700,000) - proof, say Mr Mitterrand's supporters, that he's getting rough, and pricey, justice.

Former French President Francois Mitterrand
Francois Mitterrand: Legacy losing its lustre
"Mr Mitterrand didn't have the opportunity to explain his position," said his lawyer Remy Wilner. "He was put directly in jail on 21 December by a judge who seemed to be guided only by a willingness to harm him, and to tarnish his image."

Influential contacts

The charges centre on a $500m shipment of Russian arms to the Angolan Government, early in the 1990s, to help them in the fight against the Unita rebels.

It is alleged that Mr Mitterrand helped a shady French businessman close that deal, using the contacts he'd made as African advisor to his father in the Elysee.

His lawyer rebuffs the allegations as nonsense saying that the man nicknamed "Papa m'a dit" ("Daddy told me") has become a born-again self-made man.

"Mr Mitterrand is not at all this type of person," he said. "When he left the Elysee he had to work on his own. He went to Africa and set up a fish processing factory which should be in operation in a few months."


Whatever happens, there will be no escaping the Mitterrand era's dirty laundry.

Mr Mitterrand is now free on bail, and there are rumours that charges against him may be toned down. But it's left a nasty smell in the air, recalling days of open nepotism at the very top of French society.

"Morally, one gets the feeling of a sharp contrast between the son of a president and his jet-setting lifestyle, and his attempt to make money from his notebook and do it to the detriment of the people in Africa," said Stephen Smith, African editor for the Le Monde newspaper.

'Angola-gate'

Amid the mass of scandals around in France at the moment, the one dubbed "Angola-gate" has certainly touched a raw nerve - even if the facts of the case have come as little surprise.

But with the current president under suspicion over illegal party funding, does the French public really care about events that happened under what already seems like an ancient regime?

Slum in Angola
Events in Angola touch a raw nerve for French public opinion
Stephen Smith thinks they do. "French public opinion is very aware of the fact that they haven't cared about what the French did in Africa, and now they should care more because very very ugly things happened there with the consent of the government," he said.

Whatever happens, there will be no escaping the Mitterrand era's dirty laundry. It is due for another airing later this month, when the former foreign minister, Roland Dumas, goes on trial in connection with the Elf scandal.

Whatever happens to the current French leader, his predecessor's legacy is losing its lustre by the day. It was the fifth anniversary of Francois Mitterrand's death last week, and just a handful of friends and relatives visited his grave.

Unsurprisingly, his eldest son couldn't make it.

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See also:

22 Dec 00 | Europe
How France's 'Mr Africa' operated
12 Jan 01 | Europe
Mitterrand son declares innocence
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