France watches nervously as fugitive Elf executive returns

THE Elf oil company, which will shortly be announced as a major sponsor of the Benetton team, is looking over its shoulder at deals which were done in the early 1990s when the firm was a state-owned company. Elf was a major player in motor racing throughout the 1970s with Tyrrell and later as a major supporter of the Renault Sport and Ligier teams. This was followed by a close relationship with Team Lotus and later (through the Renault connection) with both Williams and Benetton.

Alfred Sirven, the former number two in the Elf company, disappeared several years ago to the Philippines to avoid an investigation into allegations that he masterminded a vast slush fund from which politicians in various companies were paid. It is alleged that many of these payments were made through compliant or front companies using a system of fictitious employees to whom salaries and commissions were paid. The money was then passed on to the politicians.

There have been suspicions for some time that some companies involved in Formula 1 might be dragged into the scandal, but to date none have yet been mentioned.

France is currently gripped by the scandal as former foreign minister Roland Dumas faces accusations that he knowingly benefitted from illegal payments to his former mistress Christine Deviers-Joncour, who enjoyed a fictitious job at Elf. Dumas was forced to resign as head of the country's top law court - the Constitutional Council - as a result of the allegations made against him.

Sirven was arrested in the Philippines on Friday and flown to Germany where he is being investigated for an alleged involvement in corrupt deals when Elf took over the East German oil company Leuna in 1992 and renamed its Elf Minol. It remains to be seen whether the Germans will extradite Sirven to France but he has warned that if he is forced to speak he will implicate hundreds of prominent Frenchmen and women but says that he will protect those who help him.

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