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.

It is true that there was competition under the Giscardian Presidency. A minister, and leading Gaullist, committed suicide in peculiar circumstances (he both took poison and drowned himself), and it was rumoured that detailed information of his involvement with a corrupt property-dealer had been circulated by political opponents who feared that Giscard might make him prime minister, thus stymieing the position of the Gaullist opposition led by Chirac. An ex-minister was assassinated, and there was talk of shady deals in a programme of municipal development. The Prime Minister received planning permission rather rapidly when he wished to build on land which formed part of the jealously preserved Mediterranean sea coast. The President himself was accused of accepting gifts of diamonds from Bokassa, the tyrannical ruler of a central African state with whom he had been unwise enough to establish some sort of amicable acquaintance. None of these affairs was elucidated to the full satisfaction of the public, though in some cases there were judicial proceedings of one kind or another. It was, however, the murder of de Broglie which cast the longest shadow and which has achieved the dimensions of a national scandal: ‘le Watergate francais’, as the presiding judge at the assize court put it.

As is invariably the case in these matters, the initial facts are simple enough. Jean de Broglie was shot in the Rue des Dardanelles in Paris, as he was leaving the apartment of Jean de Varga, a business associate. There was never any doubt as to the identity of the man who pulled the trigger: it was Gérard Frèche, an unstable, small-time crook, known as Petit Gérard. Nor was there any doubt as to his associates in the crime, Simoné and Tessèdre. And if it was a shock to the general public to know that a member of one of the great aristocratic families of France, a descendant of a Marshal of France, of former prime ministers, Academicians and Nobel Prize-winners, of Necker and Madame de Stäel, himself a Deputy, former minister and co-founder of the Independent Republican Party, had been the victim of a vulgar assassination in the street, those who were in the know were not in the least surprised and the general public was soon brought up to date. There was more to Jean de Broglie, then aged 55, than an ambitious, active politician. However much General de Gaulle may have appreciated the presence of de Broglie’s name among his ministers, at least until 1967, Pompidou had hastily dispensed with his services. De Broglie had then concentrated all his energies on making money and had flung himself into an extraordinary flurry of activity within a plethora of companies (many of which were fictive) and a multiplicity of enterprises (some of which were fraudulent). Such was his reputation that in 1973, when he let it be known that he hoped to be elected President of the National Assembly’s Finance Commission, Giscard d’Estaing himself, although he was the leader of the Independent Republicans, de Broglie’s party, and although he was related to de Broglie through his wife Anne-Aymone de Brantes, and had been known to call him ‘mon cousin’, intervened to prevent this happening. Over the next three years de Broglie’s financial dealings became increasingly frantic and questionable, his associates less respectable, the distance between his twilight world of crooked finance and the world of gangster violence less clear. What could be more likely than that de Broglie had been assassinated because of these associations? Within five days, the Minister of the Interior, Prince Poniatowski, had called a news conference and, surrounded by the chief officers of his police force, had triumphantly announced that Pierre de Varga was the instigator of the murder and that all those involved were under lock and key. The motive? Varga and others had borrowed £400,000 from de Broglie in order to acquire a famous Paris restaurant, La Reine Pédauque. It was in order to avoid repaying this loan that the murder had been organised. In other words, de Broglie had paid the penalty of associating with crooks. Neither the President nor any ministers attended his funeral, which was held at his ancestral home, at Broglie, in Normandy.

But even the public wondered why Varga had been so foolish as to have his victim assassinated in front of his home, just after the two had had a business meeting. The motive for the crime seemed inadequate, since the debt was not cancelled by de Broglie’s violent death, and the speed with which all members of the gang had been rounded up was truly remarkable. The vague suspicion that it was incorrect for the Minister of the Interior publicly to proclaim the guilt of a number of people who had not yet been fully interrogated by the examining magistrate, let alone tried in court, was confirmed by an irritated Minister of Justice. And the more that was known about the policeman, Simoné, the more bizarre he became. He was evidently unreliable and unsatisfactory in his official capacity. Since he was notoriously a lavish spender though he earned only a modest salary, it must have been obvious that he was a highly suspect character. Yet he continued to enjoy the confidence of his superiors and to escape effective disciplinary inquiry or sanction. It was not surprising that rumours began to grow and that the knowing ones of le tout Paris began to whisper that all was not as simple as Giscard’s Government had wished the world to think: when it became known that de Broglie’s black briefcase was unaccountably missing and that the police had accidentally destroyed certain documents, the nodding and the winking became national and noisy.

Jesus Ynfante, a journalist who had specialised in the study of the semi-secret, right-wing Catholic organisation, the Opus Dei, the so-called Santa-Mafia of Spain, and its ramifications, noticed that among the many companies with which the dead prince was involved was one called Sodetex, based in the tax-haven of Luxembourg. This he found profoundly significant, because Sodetex was an off-shoot of Matesa, the Spanish export company which had broken all records for the sale of its textile machines abroad and which had raised vast sums of money from the Spanish Government in order to maintain this success. In 1969 it had been revealed that the figures for the export of machines were false, and that Matesa was nothing but an enormous fraud which existed for the benefit of Opus Dei in general and a number of individuals (including members of Franco’s family) in particular. Ynfante therefore inspired the Spanish daily paper El Pais and the French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchâiné to point out these connections, and that Giscard d’Estaing’s father, Edmond, had allegedly had close connections with Opus Dei. The link between de Broglie, Matesa, Opus Dei and the Giscard d’Estaing family is for him the key to the whole affair, and his book on the de Broglie crime is the result of long and careful investigation of this theme.

On 2 April 1980, Le Canard Enchaîné caused a sensation on another front by publishing the text of two reports written by an Inspector, Michel Roux, to the then director of the Police Judicaire, Jean Ducret, in April and September 1976. In addition to suggesting that de Broglie was engaged in the forgery of Treasury bonds, these reports let it be known that in the criminal underworld of Paris it was public knowledge that de Broglie was due to be assassinated. These documents, which were reluctantly accepted as being genuine, proved the truth of a long-standing assertion: that the Police knew that de Broglie’s life was in danger and that the presumed killers were under sporadic surveillance from two separate branches of the Police before 24 December 1976. More specifically, it was clear that the Police had done nothing at all to warn de Broglie of the threat to his life or to protect him, and that it was only after the unfortunate Deputy was dead that the assassins, who had naturally been known for some time, were arrested.

Why did the Police behave in this fashion? Did Ducret inform the Minister of the Interior of these reports? When the Minister made his statement on 29 December 1976, did he know about them? Why were these reports not passed on to the officers of justice when they were inquiring into the murder? Why was the existence of these reports always so strenuously denied? And, above all, why had de Broglie become the known target for a hit-man?

It was hoped that the trial before the assize court would provide an answer to these questions. But this did not happen. The Police protested that they had not taken the reports seriously. Nor did they wish to reveal the identity of the informer who was the source of their information. Poniatowski, like the then Prime Minister, Raymond Barre, claimed that he knew nothing. The only possible solution was that provided by the old accusation: Varga got Simoné to employ Tessèdre to arrange things so that Frèche would kill de Broglie, the motive being his inability to repay the loan for La Reine Pédauque. All the old objections to this version of what happened remain and have only been intensified by the bewildering behaviour of the Police and of the then Minister of the Interior, Poniatowski. The only thing that has been generally agreed is that there has been a conspiracy of lying.

Jesus Ynfante sees deep reasons for deep conspiracies. He believes that a necessary step in logic is to understand that if the Government and its agents did nothing to protect de Broglie, and if they did nothing to hamper the would-be killers (one of whom was a police-man), this was because they were not averse to de Broglie being killed. If subsequently their aim was to get it across that the motive was a minor transaction concerning a Paris restaurant, and to organise a concerted campaign of lies so as to conceal their own complicity, then this is because they wished to hide why it was that de Broglie’s disappearance had been necessary and was welcome. This is logic. From then on Ynfante has some documentary evidence: he is able to show that the Sodetex company was presided over by de Broglie, that it was an off-shoot of Matesa, that it raised money on behalf of the Spanish company and that it received money from Spain, possibly from the Spanish Government or from Opus Dei. With the collapse of Matesa, de Broglie was asked to return that money, but he did not return it all. Some important sums remained owing, and some say that we are talking about several hundred thousand pounds. Ynfante now enters the realm of pure speculation. Can it not be, he asks, that this money, or at least some of it, was raised for the use of the Independent Republican (or Giscardian) Party? It was these funds which enabled them to prepare for the legislative elections of 1973, and it would have been normal for de Broglie to see himself as a fund-raiser for the party which he had helped to found. But once Matesa was under the threat of investigation, once it was clear that there was to be recrimination over the money that had disappeared, de Broglie became an embarrassment, possibly even a threat as, politically, he moved closer to Giscard’s potential rival, Chirac.

There are those who find these suppositions fanciful. They point to the febrile nature of de Broglie’s financial activities. Jacques Derogy and Jean-Marie Pontaut write of him as being overwhelmed by debt, yet he owned property throughout France and in several Mediterranean countries, he was involved with many companies, he had advanced money to maniac inventors as well as to shady individuals (such as Simoné, Guy le Menteur, the policeman), he was perpetually juggling with loans and debts but could never resist the temptation to embark upon some new enterprise. He was under investigation from several sections of the Police. He owed vast sums to the income tax and was suspected of continued tax frauds. Security agents were worried about his association with an Algerian financier who was supposedly an agent of the Algerian Government. His associates had openly been accused of gun-running and currency smuggling, there had been whispered mentions of drugs and forgery. A close colleague, in 1975, was stripped of his Legion of Honour when it was discovered, after an inquiry, that he had worked with the Germans and had not been a hero of the Resistance. Two other close colleagues committed suicide in mysterious circumstances. One has the impression that de Broglie was heading inevitably towards spectacular disaster. Would he not have brought others down with him too?

One can understand that the different sections of the Police got lost as they tried to keep track of so much suspect activity, both national and international. With several informers (and it is said that Varga worked for the Renseignements Généraux), with policemen who openly collaborated with gangsters (could not Simoné have been a member of the Service d’Action Civique, the semi-independent organisation which was later involved in the 1981 killings at Auriol in the South of France?), with politics and security dictating secrecy, with several Bureaux conducting independent and rival investigations, it is not surprising that there should have been confusion and incompetence. It is natural too that, after the event, there should be a cover-up to conceal the clumsiness and the mistakes. In this way the affaire de Broglie seems to have resembled one of its predecessors, the affaire Ben Barka, where the different services of the Police and Security were ignorant of each other’s activities: the French Communist Party has claimed to have identified an inspector of police who was active in both cases.

It is possible that the trial did register one item of progress. In a bizarre sub-plot, a heart specialist, Nelly Azerad, who counted both Varga and de Broglie amongst her patients, has been accused of plotting to murder Varga whilst he was in prison. It is claimed that she referred once to Varga as the person who had killed an associate of hers, another doctor, some years earlier. If Varga had already killed once, it may well be true that he killed de Broglie.

Since the trial, the Due de Broglie’s son has claimed that there were many irregularities in the running of La Reine Pédauque, and that the management accorded Varga unwarranted financial advantages, such as a Mercedes and the right to entertain his guests without paying. The restaurant’s finances were, in any case, extremely unsound. It is interesting that a member of the de Broglie family should mention this, because de Broglie’s widow had previously rejected the hypothesis of the killing being the result of financial transactions connected with the restaurant. Thus the essence of Poniatowski’s statement five days after the killing might be true. He may have lied by omission, he may have failed to explain how the Police had been involved and why the killers thought they had official protection, he may have been misleading about the motive for the crime and he certainly lent his support for a massive cover-up. If all this is so, the affaire de Broglie is more and more like the affaire Dreyfus. Much of the strident excitement and drama derive from the imagination and invention of the protagonists. This does not, however, prevent the affaire de Broglie from being a scandal appropriate to the years of the Giscardian Presidency, years which, more and more, are taking on the appearance of a low, dishonest septennate.