Paris set for Elf trial
By Hugh Schofield
BBC correspondent in Paris
Elf was "an arm of foreign policy"
One of France's biggest ever corruption trials gets underway in Paris on Monday, with 37 people facing charges of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from the formerly state-owned oil company Elf.
The suspects, who include Elf's top managers in the early 1990s, are suspected of creaming off money from the massive commissions that were systematically paid out to certain African leaders and influential middlemen in order to secure contracts.
This monumental trial has been eight years in preparation and is set to last three months.
At its heart lies the system of officially sanctioned influence-buying that allowed successive French governments to use Elf almost as an arm of foreign policy, especially in Africa.
The former Elf president is already in jail
Billions of Francs were paid out in bribes and commissions, including, it is alleged, to well-known African leaders.
And in the early 1990s, the court will be told, some of that money made its way back to France to line the pockets of senior executives.
Elf's president at the time, Loik Le Floch-Prigent, his number two, Alfred Sirven, and the country's so-called Mr Africa, Alfred Tarallo, lead the charge sheet.
The first two are already serving prison terms after being convicted in the related trial of the former Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas.
This trial will focus only on the allegations of personal enrichment by these men.
But other murkier claims, the bribery of African governments, the funding of French political parties, and the alleged funnelling of funds via Elf to the then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl form the backdrop.
It was a vast network of government-sponsored corruption that all involved say came to an end with Elf's privatisation in 1994, but whose secrets are today only gradually and reluctantly coming to light.