Atelier 3, article 10

© Joseph Fitchett :
International Herald Tribune, March 13, 2001

                                                 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
                                  Monopoly board.

                                  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
                                  from Berluti.

                                  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
                                  now-famous boots.

                                  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