World

The president’s Diamondgate

Marci McDonald October 22 1979
World

The president’s Diamondgate

Marci McDonald October 22 1979

The president’s Diamondgate

World

As scoops go, it was nothing less than a jewel. Le Canard Enchaîné, Paris’ maverick investigative weekly—fresh from publishing French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing’s tax returns, which showed he had been rather lucky playing the stock market—last week detonated a minor political scandal by charging that he had been even more fortunate with personal gifts he had received from newly deposed Central African Emperor Bokassa I. With scarlet, front-page headlines, the newspaper reprinted an alleged copy of a 1973 letter from Bokassa ordering a 30-carat spray of diamonds for a “M. Giscard d’Estaing” (Giscard was then French finance minister)—a little present now worth an estimated $250,000.

Going on to include in its accusations the

president’s brother, Olivier, and his influential cousins Jacques and François d'Estaing, both of whom did state business with the impoverished African country, Le Canard quacked darkly of a “Watergate à la française."

In fact, that threat was as farfetched as it was an ironic counterpoint to the rest of the week’s events. Only the opposition newspapers leapt on Le Canard's revelations. Three major Paris dailies, all controlled by Giscard's staunch supporter Robert Flersant, printed no word of the accusations for a full 24 hours.

Indeed, combined with the government’s appointment last week of Flenri Pigeat, a former top-ranking civil servant from the ministry of information, to head the supposedly independent national wire service, Agence France-Presse (AFP), the reticence of a large part of the French media spoke eloquently enough. To some worried observers, what France’s “Diamondgate” served to reveal was not so much the presidential taste in African souvenirs as his increasing predilection for a fettered press.

The four unions representing AFP employees issued an angry joint denunciation of Pigeat’s appointment. But, in fact, it was already acknowledged that the government controlled the wire service’s board of directors and subsidized 60 per cent of its budget. Nor was it the first time that the Elysée’s man had been put into the presidential slot. In 1975, just after Giscard’s election, the authorities nominated a former French ambassador to the AFP post, only backing down when such foreign subscribers as The Washington Post and The New York Times reacted with outrage.

Since then, Giscardiens have been placed in the top spots of the leading radio and TV chains and a close presidential aide, Yves Cannae, last year was named head of the huge state-run advertising agency, Flavas, which controls the media’s economic jugular.

In one sense, it is merely a continuation of former president Charles de Gaulle’s tacit policy. But critics are now noting with I some alarm that—despite Giscard’s dis> claimers—he is steadily tightening his grip 5 over the nation’s previously untouched 2j newspapers. In 1976, when the leading ü Paris daily France Soir came up for sale,

several prospective buyers were reportedly waved off by the government to allow an unknown group to take over. One month later, Flersant, who had bought Le Figaro the previous year, was revealed to be a 50per-cent owner. Much the same scenario was repeated when bankrupt textile tycoon Marcel Boussac’s L’Aurore went on the auction block.

When opposition protests flared against Flersant’s growing monopoly, he was quietly indicted under a dusty 1944 law forbidding multiple ownership of the press. But observers doubt that the case will ever come to trial and point out that the government has Flersant just where they want him—on their side but duly warned not to overstep his bounds.

Increased agitation from the Gaullist party for a parliamentary investigation into government control of the media prompted a six-month inquiry. But late last month, to nobody’s great surprise, its report contained a mere 20 typewritten lines of whitewash and, like many another French hot potato, it quickly faded into yesterday’s news.

That fate just as surely awaits Giscard's “Diamondgate.” Le Canard's attitude to the rest of its competitors is contained in its motto: “Press freedom wears out only when not used.” But that warning has rolled off much of the French press like water off a duck's back.

Marci McDonald