"Tax, Lies and Videotape"

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The high drama of French political scandal began resembling the theater of the absurd last week. Beyond-the-grave accusations implicating conservative President Jacques Chirac in illegal party financing were swiftly spun around to attack the integrity of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and his leftist allies. That plot reversal scripted with outrage, magical incantation, improbable memory failure and a cameo by a fashion celebrity marked an emphatic end to the polite Chirac-Jospin powersharing known as cohabitation.

Hostilities exploded with reports in the daily Le Monde of a videotaped confession by property developer Jean-Claude Mery claiming he ran a kickback scheme providing millions of dollars in illicit funding to Chirac's Rally for the Republic (rpr) party in the '80s and early '90s. Recorded three years before Mery's 1999 death, the account describes the system as "working for Chirac's benefit" politically. It also recalls a delivery of a nearly $660,000 slush fund to a top rpr advisor as Chirac who was both mayor of Paris and Prime Minister at the time looked on. While the tape cannot be used in court, legal authorities seized copies as part of investigations into allegations that rpr kickback schemes were run out of Chirac's City Hall. In a televised appearance to answer Le Monde's report, a furious Chirac described the posthumous revelation as "abracadabrantesque" and its claims as "lies."

Before Chirac's allies could begin their spin control, a tax lawyer who had worked with Mery told investigators he'd given former Socialist Finance Minister and key Jospin aide Dominique Strauss-Kahn a copy of the taped confession in 1999 at a time when he was considered a contender for the rpr-held Paris mayor's office and might have viewed Mery's confession as a potential campaign weapon. Strauss-Kahn who was forced to resign as Finance Minister later in 1999 under suspicion of corruption admitted last week he had received the tape but never knew its contents. Press reports claimed the attorney had asked Strauss-Kahn to intervene on behalf of a client designer Karl Lagerfeld to reduce a $39.5 million tax fine. Both men later denied influence was used to reduce Lagerfeld's fine to its final $6.6 million. The authorities are investigating whether Strauss-Kahn concealed evidence.

The twist allowed conservatives to contend Jospin and his allies knew about their former partner's covert possession and underhanded designs, and connived in their cover- up. Some government supporters responded by vigorously repudiating Strauss-Kahn, though most struggled to redirect attention to the tape's dire implications about the honesty of Chirac and his party. Meanwhile, French voters, increasingly disenchanted with the political process (only 30% bothered to vote in a Sept. 24 referendum to reduce the presidential term), know that the current psychodrama is only Act I in a long run-up to the probable Chirac-Jospin battle for the presidency in 2002.