French judges order seizure of substantial Tapie assets

Lagarde's status may change from ‘assisted witness’ to being placed under investigation

French businessman Bernard Tapie: under formal investigation on suspicion of fraud. Photograph: Fred Dufour/Reuters

French businessman Bernard Tapie: under formal investigation on suspicion of fraud. Photograph: Fred Dufour/Reuters

Thu, Jul 11, 2013, 04:15

Judges investigating the arbitration process that resulted in the payment of €403 million to the businessman Bernard Tapie in 2008 have begun seizing Mr Tapie’s assets.

An ex-convict and friend of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Tapie is suspected of having orchestrated the “massive fraud in an organised group” by imposing the appointment of Pierre Estoup as chief arbiter in the case. Mr Estoup had worked with Mr Tapie’s lawyer at least nine times and was sympathetic to his suit against the state- owned Crédit Lyonnais bank.

IMF director Christine Lagarde, who as French finance minister approved the arbitration, may be summoned again by the Court of the Republic and her status in the investigation may change from “assisted witness” to being placed under investigation as a party to the scheme.

Judges Serge Tournaire and Guillaume Daieff ordered the seizure of substantial amounts of Mr Tapie’s assets on June 28th, after clearing the request with the Paris prosecutor, as revealed by Le Monde yesterday.

French justice has taken possession of two life insurance accounts which Mr Tapie purchased with the €45 million he received for “moral prejudice” as part of the 2008 settlement. The accounts are valued at €20.8 million today.

Authorities have also seized €69.3 million in equity in Mr Tapie’s mansion in the Rue des Saints-Pères in central Paris, and confiscated the Saint Tropez villa he bought for €48 million in 2011. Judges are awaiting approval to seize six more bank accounts, a €180 million life insurance policy held by Mr Tapie’s holding company, and La Provence and Nice-Matin newspapers, which he bought last December.

Principal witnesses are pleading faulty memories or blaming each other, as shown by accounts of the closed-door hearings published by Le Monde and the investigative website Mediapart, both of which have gained access to the dossier.

Patrick Ouart, who was legal adviser at the presidential palace under Mr Sarkozy, and François Pérol, then deputy secretary general, have accused Claude Guéant of organising the meetings that led to the arbitration. As secretary general of the Élysée, Mr Guéant was Mr Sarkozy’s right-hand man.

Mr Sarkozy enjoys immunity for acts committed during his time in the presidential office – where Mr Tapie visited him 22 times. Contradictions in testimony about the Tapie affair are surfacing just as Mr Sarkozy attempts to stage a political comeback.

In her testimony on May 23rd-24th, Ms Lagarde blamed her former cabinet director, Stéphane Richard, claiming he had used her signature machine to sign the order that precipitated the arbitration while she attended an IMF meeting in Washington.

Mediapart has confirmed that Ms Lagarde was in fact in Paris that day, where she made several public appearances, including a radio interview. Ms Lagarde also denied knowledge of two incriminating communiqués regarding the Tapie arbitration, issued in her name by the finance ministry.