Chirac, Villepin deny took millions in Africa cash

PARIS (Reuters) – Former French president Jacques Chirac and his prime minister Dominique de Villepin have denied  accusations by a one-time aide that they took millions of  dollars in illicit cash handouts from African leaders.

In explosive — if hard to verify — testimony seven months ahead of a presidential election, lawyer Robert Bourgi told a radio station yesterday that he had handed them some $20 million from heads of state of former French colonies. The secret campaign donations were sometimes concealed in African drums or crammed into suitcases. Both Chirac and Villepin plan to sue.

Bourgi also advised President Nicolas Sarkozy but denied  passing cash to him — a denial questioned by others, including  supporters of Villepin, whose potential challenge to Sarkozy at April’s election would follow years of bitter in-fighting in the  Gaullist movement that long dominated the French centre-right.

Sarkozy’s aides denied he had any link to the allegations, though his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, was quick to forecast that the affair would hurt the president’s campaign.

Bourgi later told French TV station BFM-TV that Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie had received financing for his 1988 presidential campaign from former Gabon President Omar Bongo.

“It’s ridiculous and unbelievable,” Jean-Marie Le Pen told RTL radio, adding he had never met Bourgi and would also sue.

French parties suffered several scandals since the 1990s for breaching strict legal rules on campaign funding. Bourgi, said the practice of tapping African allies — part of a patronage network commonly known as “Francafrique” — went back to the 1960s, and he believed few politicians were unaware of it.

Chirac, whose party long enjoyed particularly warm ties with the autocratic rulers of former colonies, is on trial at present on charges of misusing public funds when he was mayor of Paris. His lawyers say the 78-year-old is not mentally fit to testify.

“I estimate the amount I delivered to Chirac and Dominique de Villepin between 1995 and 2005 at $20 million,” Bourgi told Europe 1 radio yesterday, following up on an interview with Sunday’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper in which he described himself as a “bag carrier” for the two politicians.

“I saw Chirac and Villepin count the money,” Bourgi said of alleged visits to their offices carrying bundles of banknotes.

The 66-year-old lawyer said he delivered money concealed in suitcases or disguised in a variety of containers — from African drums to advertising posters. The cash was donated, he  said, by the leaders of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Congo and Gabon, two of whom — Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso — are still in office.

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