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Last Updated: Monday, 1 December, 2003, 01:27 GMT
Book delves into frigate scandal
By Hugh Schofield
In Paris

It has been one of France's biggest political and financial scandals of the last generation.

It has left a trail of eight unexplained deaths, nearly half a billion dollars in missing cash and troubling allegations of government complicity.

La Fayette class frigate (Photo:Naval-Technology)
Taiwan did not actually want the frigates, but was convinced
And yet 10 years after it first broke, the story of the "frigates-to-Taiwan" scandal has yet to be told in full.

While investigating judges in Paris have been able to uncover the secrets of a host of other "affaires", from the Elf slush-funds to the details of President Jacques Chirac's private travel, the Taiwan connection remains off-limits.

A government order banning judicial access to key documents for reasons of state security has twice been renewed, most recently in June last year.

As a result, a criminal inquiry launched in 1997 remains stalled.

But the suspicions continue to grow: who has what to fear from the truth? Why, when the Taiwanese Government is doing all it can to uncover what happened, does France stubbornly refuse to do the same?

The questions are posed in a new book by a man who was one of France's top anti-corruption magistrates.

'Detective thriller'

Thierry Jean-Pierre spent two years researching "Taiwan Connection - Scandals and Murders at the Heart of the Republic."

Reading like a detective thriller, the story takes Mr Jean-Pierre from the study of a pipe-smoking intelligence agent in Paris - his main informant - to the skyscrapers of Taipei and the sands of Mauritius.

It begins in the late 1980s, when Taiwan, in a state of chronic alarm about the threat from mainland China, is seeking to upgrade its fleet.

Alfred Sirven, recently tried and convicted for his role in the Elf scandal, is accused of trying to influence the then  Foreign Minister in the frigate affair, too.

Sensing a rare opportunity, the then state-owned French defence electronics company Thomson teams up with the Naval Construction Directorate (DCN) to talk the Taiwanese admirals out of a nearly-completed contract with Hyundai of Korea.

But the admirals need a good reason to opt for France's La Fayette class frigates, which are still at the design stage and actually fail to meet many of Taipei's own specifications.

That reason turns out to be a massive commission.

Not unusual in itself - but then the commissions start to multiply.

A three-armed lobbying operation is put in place. A middleman called Andrew Wang is paid to oil the wheels in Taipei.

The seductively-named Lily Liu undertakes to buy off opposition to the deal in Beijing.

And in Paris, Alfred Sirven, of Elf slush-fund fame, tries to influence former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas via his girlfriend Christine Deviers-Joncour.

Strange deaths

The cost of all this is monumental. By the time the six frigates are finally paid for, their price has rocketed to Ffr16bn (2.44bn euros), of which nearly a third is estimated to have been the cost of the bribes and commissions.

The question is: where has this money gone? About half has been identified and some of that frozen in accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere.

But that still leaves FFr2.5bn (380m euros) unaccounted for.

When I compare our old democracy with Taiwan, a country where martial law was lifted a short while ago, I am seized by shame
Thierry Jean-Pierre
According to Mr Jean-Pierre, the obstruction of the French political establishment can only raise one suspicion: That some of the missing millions came back to France in the form of the famous "retro-commissions" - the illegal rake-offs used to fund political parties and personalities that were the stuff of a series of trials over the past 10 years.

This would be shocking enough - but there is much more.

Since the signing of "Contract Bravo" in 1991, Mr Jean-Pierre says at least eight people who knew about the affair have died in suspicious circumstances.

They start with Yin Cheng-feng, a Taiwanese naval official who was about to blow the whistle on the commissions. He was murdered in December 1993.

Later Yin's nephew died an unusual death, as did a Taiwanese bank official who acted for the naval dockyards there.

In France, an intelligence agent named Thierry Imbot plunged to his death from his Paris flat.

He had been charged with following the frigate negotiations for the secret service.

Deaths continue

A year later, former Taiwan-based Thomson employee Jacques Morrison also fell to his death from a high window.

He had told friends he feared for his life because he was the last witness to the talks.

More than enough then to justify a judicial investigation into what Mr Jean-Pierre describes as "easily the biggest politico-financial scandal of the last 10 years".

And yet in France all efforts to cast light on the affair are stymied.

In Taiwan, by contrast, the furore generated by the scandal helped bring down the Kuomintang regime in 2000, and the new government has made sure judges have access to all but the most highly-classified documents.

"The reputation of France has been seriously stained," concludes Mr Jean-Pierre.

"And when I compare our old democracy with Taiwan, a country where martial law was only lifted a short while ago, I am seized by shame."

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