Imbroglio

Douglas Johnson

On Wednesday, 23 December 1981, four men were sent to prison for the murder, on 24 December 1976, of the Prince de Broglie. The trial, in the Paris assize court, ended with Gérard Frèche, the gunman, being given a ten-year term; Guy Simoné, a former policeman who was heavily involved in the conspiracy to kill, and Pierre de Varga, a self-proclaimed aristocrat of Hungarian origins who was allegedly the instigator of the whole affair, were also given ten years; Serge Tessèdre, who was accused of recruiting the gunman, received five years, and as he had already spent that time in prison, was almost immediately released. The trial had lasted more than six weeks; the jury of nine laymen and three magistrates had deliberated for five hours; the inquiry into the crime, which had of necessity been going on for several years, had resulted in some five thousand documents being assembled in the dossier. But no one was satisfied either with the trial or with the verdicts. All the commentators were agreed: although the court had summoned before it a former prime minister and all the leading ministers and officers of the police who had been involved in the case, the mountain had given birth to a mouse. The assassination remains a mystery.

This is what one should have expected. Each country has its own kind of scandal and cause célèbre. In America the scandals are those of vulgar corruption, with members of the Administration using their power and position to line their pockets and to block the actions of justice. In England there are usually sexual undertones to our scandals, even where treason is involved. In France, where politics and social connections are always a factor, nothing is ever cleared up beyond the reach of doubt, and the impression always remains that there is still much that is concealed, secret and mysterious. Dreyfus may not have been guilty of selling military secrets to the Germans, but who then delivered the information, recorded in the celebrated document discovered in 1894? The so-called Stavisky was certainly a crook, and he must have had protectors in high places to have avoided the courts for so long: but did he commit suicide in 1934, or was he murdered, and what story would he have told had he come before a judge? The exiled Moroccan dissident, Ben Barka, was certainly disposed of by his political opponents, but his body has never been discovered. No one is sure what happened to him after he disappeared in front of the Brasserie Lipp, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, in 1965, and although it is clear that sections of the French security police collaborated with agents of the Moroccan Government, no one knows how, or why or to what extent.

Naturally, there are other cases in France which are not famous and which are claimed as examples of official bungling and legal mistakes, much as are to be found in most countries. However, sooner or later, these incidents are seen to have some sort of political implications. In 1946, for example, two men were found guilty of having murdered a gamekeeper in the department of the Indre. They were sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment each, but released well before they had served their time because there were considerable doubts as to their guilt. Now a new witness has come forward who claims to be able to identify the real killer, and a story is emerging in which police brutality goes hand in hand with the influence of the local château and the in-fighting of the post-Liberation period. In the more celebrated Dominici affair, centring on the murder, at Lurs, in the Basses-Alpes, of the Englishman Sir Jack Drummond and his family, the fact that Lurs was a Communist village has, rightly or wrongly, been a focus of interest in a case where the motives for a particularly horrible crime have never been established. When General de Gaulle eventually pardoned old Gaston Dominici, who had officially been declared the murderer, it was not simply because the General, like many others, had doubts as to the real author of the killings: after all, he is supposed to have said, Dominici has only killed English people.

But each regime has to have its own major, official scandal. For the Third Republic in its first phase, it was Dreyfus. In its second phase, after 1918, it was Stavisky. For the Fourth Republic, it was the affaire des fuites, when details of Cabinet meetings and security measures were leaked to the Viet-Minh and their Communist allies during the war in Indo-china. For de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, it was the kidnapping and presumed murder of Ben Barka. For his short-lived successor, Pompidou, it was the murder of a Yugoslav adventurer, Markevitch, which allegedly involved sections of Parisian society that included the President and his wife. For the septennate of Giscard d’Estaing, it was the murder of de Broglie.

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