Tapie's game of hide and seek is drawing to a close

 

BEHIND the heavy wooden gates band cobblestone courtyard of Bernard Tapie's elegant hotel particular in the rue des Saints Peres lives an anguished man.

The 54 year old former football star, former cabinet minister and bankrupt millionaire must decide today whether to present himself at La Sante prison before midnight.

He has spoken of his "terror" of prison, and friends describe Tapie as "very worried, very agitated, very tense". How the mighty are fallen.

If Tapie gives himself up, there is the tiniest chance that France's Supreme Court may tomorrow accept his appeal for a retrial, and Tapie would walk out of the courtroom a free man. Under the French penal code, convicts facing more than six months in jail must spend the night before Supreme Court hearings behind bars.

If Tapie does not report to prison tonight, his appeal will be thrown out. Incarceration would then become automatic, after several weeks legal formalities.

Bernard Tapie's long game of hide and seek with French judges is drawing to a close. He was convicted of paying bribes of £23,121 to three players from the Valenciennes soccer club to lose a match against his Olympique Marseille club in May 1993. For this he received the eight month prison sentence to be considered by the Supreme Court tomorrow.

Tapie is also appealing a six month sentence for tax fraud he had registered his yacht, Phocea, as a merchant vessel.

Tapie, his wife and children now inhabit a few rooms of their mansion. The furniture and paintings were impounded last autumn, after he was declared bankrupt.

The indefatigable Tapie then reinvented himself as a movie actor and delivered a realistic portrayal of an unprincipled businessman in Claude Lelouch's Men, Women, A User's Manual. French authorities seized the £381,502 Tapie earned in profits.

Now in the midst of shooting a second film, Fifi Martingale, Tapie is asking to be allowed to work in the daytime and spend nights only in prison.

Another case involving Tapie's, alleged diversion of £11.6 million from his soccer club will be tried in May. His dealings with the troubled Credit Lyonnais bank are still under investigation. In this blizzard of charges, Tapie hopes the EU will accept his plea for immunity as a member of the European Parliament.

The government stripped him of his seat in the French gesture last year, and the EU body will decide on February 17th whether to expel him, as the French have requested.

Tapie says his case is an important precedent: "If in the future countries less democratic than France enter the Union, their governments mustn't be able to strip European deputies of their office," he says.

In the meantime, Tapie has won a small victory. The scandal magazine, Gala, last week published a cover photo of Tapie with his nine year old daughter under the heading, "Bernard Tapie, The Prisoner". Tapie got the courts to remove the issue from the newsstands.