The Gang That Accessorized
by Joseph Fitchett
Tales of High Living and Berluti Boots Regale Dumas Trial
PARIS The hottest show in Paris this week may come from an
off-runway site, a Paris criminal court.
A rhinestone's throw away from the Carrousel du Louvre, judges
and some members of the public (courtroom passes are hotter
tickets than collection invites) are being regaled with tales about
the lifestyles of some racy characters who looted the giant Elf oil
company in the early 1990s.
Unsurprisingly for a corruption case in France, the main event -
which pols pocketed the payola? - has produced meager results.
But the testimony has thrown up a wealth of details - always the
stuff of crime, as of fashion - about how a handful of Elf insiders
went through more money than most people ever see outside a
This group hardly needed notoriety of the type craved by the
Trumps or even France's last big swindler-spender, Bernard
Tapie. On the contrary, these corporate insiders had the same
shopping reflexes as their successful peers in stock markets and
start-ups a decade ago.
The Elf gang "accessorized."
Psychologically, it was reassuring. Socially, it was the right calling
card in a gilded age of overnight fortunes. For the Elf gang, it was
practical since the purveyors of these glamorous trappings were
just around the corner in Paris.
So the Elf crowd spent millions of francs at Cartier and Hermes,
amassing the new "musts" in luxury goods - such as boots, scarves
and jewelry - with the anonymous glamour that befits people who
want to be seen but not necessarily known.
The new creed of recognition shuns anything recognizable as
individual choice - even a designer-signed style- in favor of the
anonymous anointment of the house, the brand, the line.
A telling exhibit in court is a pair of $2,000 ankle boots bought for
Foreign Minister Roland Dumas in 1991 when Elf was trying to
bribe him (unsuccessfully, it appears) to approve a French arms
sale to Taiwan. Dumas - every inch the portrait of France's
greatest diplomat, Talleyrand, with his worldly allure and
perceptible limp - got the shoes from the bootmaker, Berluti, as a
present from his mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, who was
employed by Elf.
A sleek, 50-something brunette, whippet-slim, she said that she
was encouraged to take the Elf job as "a chance to make
something of yourself" by her second husband (himself eyeing a
future with the company). In retrospect, she styles herself, perhaps
with a touch of nostalgia for the monarchy, "the whore of the
republic," which was the title of her memoirs published last year.
While it lasted, she and Dumas lived ravenously off Elf's golden
corporate credit card, including 200,000 francs ($28,000) worth
of meals one month at Le Pichet, a restaurant just down the block
It was the ankle boots, or perhaps their price tag, that triggered
spasms of tongue-wagging about corruption. Dumas maintains that
he has always fancied the company's footwear because its fine
Italian craftsmanship eases the pain he suffers from a hip problem.
Certainly Dumas is well-heeled enough to be well-shod. He was
the lawyer who handled the estates of Picasso and Giacometti.
Loot or not, the boots will live on in French folk memory - proof
of crime by price tag in the way that Monica Lewinsky's blue
dress carries the mark of Cain as a body-fluid stain. In the United
States, money talks and sex causes scandal; in France, it's usually
the other way around.
Big money was overwhelmingly new to the two main defendants:
Loik le Floch-Prigent, the Socialist who ran Elf as a personal
empire; and his No. 2, Alfred (Fred) Sirven, who managed Elf
International and the Elf Foundation, corporate arms that did good
works and also pumped illicit funds to selected political and
industrial leaders and, it is alleged, kickbacks to Sirven and
THE HEART of this network was Sirven's apartment in the tiny,
dead-end Rue Robert Estienne that runs off Rue Marbeuf in the
8th arrondissement, a cosmopolitan neighborhood. Delineated by
its shopping profile, the neighborhood runs from the Arc de
Triomphe to the upscale stretch of the Faubourg St. Honore, from
Avenue Montaigne to the Place Vendome.
From there the Elf crowd rarely had to stir, except to go the
airport en route to Taiwan or Gabon or Kazakhstan to scour the
globe for oil or other business opportunities.
Their canteens were in the neighborhood. For late lunches, they
frequented the garden bar at the Ritz. A favorite stopover between
the suburban Elf tower and the Sirven turf (the Foundation was
nearby on Rue Christophe Colombe) was the St. James Club,
with its fresh patina of posh.
Marius et Jeannette, a golden oldie for the rich and famous, was
their fish place for its yachting ambience. Stresa, the red plush
Italian bistro for insiders from show business and industry, only
seats 40: When he was in town, Sirven kept an open table there
twice a week so friends knew where to find him. (He was partial
to its Jean-Paul Belmondo spaghetti, named for the roguish film
star with its chile-peppered tomato sauce.)
A special place was Laurent, where they liked the groundfloor
salon. The Plaza Athenee hotel's courtyard was an alfresco
THE ELF guys had a Left Bank favorite, Divellec, near the
National Assembly, whose owner used to quip: "I cook seafood in
the kitchen, the Elf guys cook deals at table."
Their favorite watering hole, Le Pichet, had migrated from the Left
Bank when Francois Mitterrand crossed the Seine in 1981 to
move into the Elysee Palace, a few blocks from Sirven country. Le
Pichet, on Rue Pierre Charron, was close enough for the president
to order in its seafood platters accompanied with gossip about
who was dining with whom. A bistro with well-spaced tables, it is
patronized by men doing deals and usually accompanied by
women other than their wives, Le Pichet fizzed with fixer talk in
those go-go days. (The Dumas-Deviers-Joncour table was against
the front wall of the back room so that he could see if anyone
looked at him.)
For the Sirven circus, these $100-a-head eateries combined cozy
conviviality and the luxurious feel equated with respectability.
Fashionistas at nearby tables never glanced at these middle-class,
middle-aged men, accompanied by women who should have
known better. For Sirven's people, it was perfect. Thanks to
Mitterrand, they had suddenly, in 1989, found themselves in
control of Elf, occupying its most prestigious executive suites and
ordering up its top corporate jets at the snap of their fingers. They
were on a roll, in a get-rich moment in France. All they wanted
now was to blend in.
Sirven's duplex was home to the gang, and it must have been the
most freewheeling household since Stephen Ward put up Christine
Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies in swinging London.
Deviers-Joncours lived in Sirven's duplex for a while along with
the current mistress of her first husband (a rightist member of
Parliament). Later they were joined by a Philippine maid who had
nursed Mr. Sirven's wife throughout a fatal illness and now
became his mistress. They eventually married, and when he had to
flee the country two years ago, she helped arrange the hideout in
the Philippines where he was finally discovered last month.
LE FLOCH-PRIGENT liked the playboy atmosphere in the
duplex: He was miserable after trading in his Breton wife of many
years for a German-Algerian woman from the Paris night scene
whom he met through Regine, the entertainer, when she was the
hostess at Ledoyen. She wanted to ensure that Le Floch was
looked after because her brother, Jose Bidermann, needed Elf
investments in his clothing business.
The Elf gang's women were usually dressed by Valentino, a
guarantee of expensive respectability. (Think Princess Grace, not
Caroline or Stephanie.) The daring outfits of Thierry Mugler, a few
doors away on Avenue Montaigne, were confined to female
tryouts encountered at the Elf Foundation, whose recruits included
a striking number of Grace Jones look-alikes.
The men bought their ties and handkerchiefs at Lanvin, whose
bland look, in France, is deemed the height of business chic.
Sometimes they just walked around the corner from Sirven's place
to shop at Francesco Smalto, who was propelled into a niche in
the hall of tailoring infamy when the French media disclosed that he
sent his suits to Gabon's President Omar Bongo and other African
leaders and he had them hand-delivered by wannabe Bond girls.
When it came to their wives and lady friends, the Elf guys were
lavish. Shoppers were mesmerized one afternoon when Sirven,
accompanied by two top Elf aides after a Yule lunch at the nearby
Ritz, swooped in on Cartier, scooping up trays of the right stuff -
watches, rings and bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
Now it has all ended in court, producing fashion footnotes,
whatever the outcome. Take the boots from Berluti, a few doors
from Le Pichet. Did Dumas pay or did Elf? Lacking other
evidence, the prosecutor's case may stand or fall on the
Another accessory has earned even more legendary status: the
Hermes address book that belonged to Sirven, 74, which was
seized by the police after they captured him last month in the
Philippines. (They didn't get his cell phone, at least not in working
order, because Sirven bit the memory chip so deeply that experts
were unable to retrieve the numbers he had called.)
HIS PERSONAL list of phone numbers - loose-leaf pages that
were confiscated without the buttery leather Hermes cover - has
withstood time and wear: Sirven fastidiously reinforced the pages
with gummed rings around the binder holes so that the often
overwritten entries survive.
A now legendary accessory to crime, the pages, even without their
sheath of Hermes leather, have acquired iconic status. As a relic of
our times, the Hermes book got fitting homage when it was
reproduced as a Paris-Match cover, perhaps the first time the
magazine has accorded such star treatment to a fashion accessory.
(*) JOSEPH FITCHETT is on the staff of the International Herald Tribune.