The plot unfolded like a cheap high-technology thriller, complete with revolutionary secret rays, an eccentric Italian inventor and a Belgian castle inhabited by a shadowy count. But the unlikely mix of suspense and farce first unravelled in the deadpan prose of a 148-page auditor’s report detailing how the government of former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was duped into losing $100 million on a fraudulent oil discovery scheme.
Last week, as a French parliamentary committee puzzled over the report, the “sniffer plane” affair, as it is called, had set one half of France chuckling
and the other half muttering darkly of sinister long-term political ramifications. As well, it had seriously tarnished the credibility of Giscard and his former prime minister, Raymond Barre, both now vying for leadership of the country’s opposition—who have been exposed in an attempted coverup.
The intrigue began in 1976, when a man who claimed to be an Italian nuclear physics professor, Aldo Bonassoli, approached the state-owned oil company Elf-Aquitaine. Bonassoli said that he had a revolutionary invention—a radar-like apparatus which, when mounted on a plane, could “sniff out” oil deposits beneath the earth’s surface. It could also detect submerged submarines. With the support of top government officials, Elf signed an initial contract for $80 million, paid into a Swiss
bank, and embarked on a $30-million prospecting test—the first of many over a three-year period. In 1978 alone the French government paid $2.2 million to Bonassoli’s Belgian patron, Count Alain de Villegas, who refurbished and computerized his imposing Château de Rivieren near Brussels and bought an airport hangar in the capital for the company headquarters.
Officials only grew suspicious after two years when the sniffer, code-named Operation Aix, had failed to unearth anything except on known Elf-Aquitaine sites. Then a skeptical industry minister, André Giraud, asked a respected French atomic scientist, Jules
Horowitz, to test the mystery machine. But the test did not go as planned. Bonassoli’s computer screen picked up the image of a straight ruler that Horowitz had hidden on the other side of a wall. But Horowitz revealed that he had bent the ruler into a V. Concluded government auditor François Giquel in a wry footnote: “Thus ended an adventure that was to give Elf-Aquitaine mastery over the earth’s buried treasures.” Bonassoli’s academic credentials later turned out to have been forged. And even a routine investigation by the French government would have revealed other grounds for suspicion as well. In 1968 Bonassoli claimed to have invented a “death ray.” But it failed to perform lethally when tested for journalists. More important, South Africa had dismissed the sniffer-plane as a
hoax in the early 1970s after spending $13 million.
Now the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné has discovered that Giscard and Barre tried to cover up the fiasco when they relinquished power to President François Mitterrand’s victorious Socialists in 1981. They took their personal reports with them into opposition and ordered the remaining four copies shredded. The disclosure was timely and damaging, because the former president was planning a political comeback. Giscard responded by charging on television that Mitterrand was “seeking to maintain power by lying.” But his indignation boomeranged. An opinion poll in the leftist daily Le Matin reported that 61 per cent of Frenchmen considered the outburst had hurt him.
Other polls showed that most people believe the sniffer funds—funnelled
into Swiss banks and still missing— were secretly channelled to conservative political parties. Newspaper investigations have shown that a handful of the scheme’s backers may have been connected to an international rightwing network with ties to Italy, Brazil and South Africa. But Bonassoli, who is now working in a laboratory in the Italian town of Ventimiglia, near the French border, denies any wrongdoing, and de Villegas, described by the auditor as “a little crazy” but essentially honest, has disappeared. For his part, Giscard last week issued a warning which the government has apparently taken with the utmost seriousness. He, too, he remarked, possessed confidential files on certain political personalities in power that could ruin their careers. -MARCI MCDONALD in Paris.
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