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By John Helmer in Moscow

Did Nicolas Sarkozy, the small rightwing candidate for President of France, benefit from the brief imprisonment in Lyon of one Russian billionaire, and from the award of a medal, days later in Paris, to another Russian billionaire, who happened to be the business partner of the first?

And was Sarkozy helped by Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, ministre blanchisseur, official custodian of French culture, receiver of kickbacks, and arranger of unorthodox donations to presidential campaign chests?

In short, on January 30, when Donnedieu de Vabres awarded the medal of Officer of the Legion of Arts and Letters to Vladimir Potanin, was this the end to an ingenious quartet of hostage-taking and ransom on the French side, procuring and precious metals on the Russian?

Let the English poet of a sordid political conspiracy of long ago explain what the striking of commemorative medals amounts to. Dryden’s poem of 1682, entitled “The Medal”, is believed to have been suggested by King Charles II, after the protestant seditionist, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, was released from the Tower of London, where he had been held on treason charges. As he went into exile in the Netherlands, his associates arranged the striking of a medal in Poland to commemorate the event.

Dryden makes much of the double-sidedness of the medal, and the duplicity and deceit of its subject, whose “hypocritic zeal
Allows no sins but those it can conceal.
Whoring to scandal gives too large a scope;
Saints must not trade, but they may interlope.”

Regarding the arrested Russian, the medal, and the two French ministers, the circumstantial facts are these:

On January 9, at the French alpine resort of Courchevel, a large team of police from Lyon arrested Mikhail Prokhorov, chief executive of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest nickel miner, and proprietor of a fortune estimated to be between $8 and $10 billion.

Acting on a warrant issued by a team of magistrates, Prokhorov and 25 alleged accomplices, most of them nubile young Russian women, were detained in Lyon. According to the French press, and the principal magistrate in charge, Prokhorov was suspected of arranging for his own benefit, and that of his guests and business associates, a cross-border traffic in women, sexual commerce, and pimping. The dossier had been in compilation for months, according to the Lyon authorities.

Most of the arrestees were released swiftly. Prokhorov and a handful of close associates remained in jail for four days. No charges were brought, but they were warned that they might be recalled as material witnesses in the investigation. Prokhorov landed in Moscow on the evening of January 12. He returned to work the following Monday, January 15. He has made no public statements. His company spokesman called the affair a “regrettable misunderstanding”.

The first press disclosures appeared in the Lyon newspaper, Le Progres, and the Moscow publication, Vedomosti, on January 11. Within forty-eight hours, newspapers as far away as New York reported that details of Prokhorov’s case were known to presidential candidate Sarkozy, the former interior minister in charge of the French police. Sarkozy is quoted as quipping about Prokhorov’s detention: “There’s a man who wants to please.” It isn’t clear whether Sarkozy was referring to Prokhorov providing sexual partners for his guests, or to Prokhorov telling his French interrogators what they want to hear.

What did they want from Prokhorov?

Prokhorov’s misadventure at the hands of the French authorities might have been swiftly forgotten, had it not been for another announcement from Interros, the Moscow holding company through which Prokhorov and long-time partner Potanin hold their most lucrative stakes.

According to Interros, on January 30 — three weeks after Prokhorov’s imprisonment in Lyon — Potanin came to Paris. There he met with the French Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, and was awarded the medal and invested with the title, Officer of the Legion of Arts and Letters. According to Interros, Donnedieu de Vabres said at the cermony: “Mr. Potanin is well known in France not only as a prominent Russian businessman, but also as a connoisseur of French culture, who has done a lot to develop cultural ties between the two nations. Such ties often appear stronger than diplomatic relations.”

The one contribution by Potanin to French culture which Interros cited was “one of the brightest Russo-French events in recent years – the exhibition «Paris – Saint Petersburg. 1800-1830. When Russia spoke French…» The exhibits for the unique show were provided by the biggest state museums of Russia and France. Interros also supported publication of the illustrated catalogue of the exhibition in Russian, French and English, as well as of the French-Russian Dictionary of Arts Terms issued in time for the exhibition.”

Interros omitted to disclose the date of the show — the spring months of 2003. It has thus taken Donnedieu de Vabres almost four years to recognize, and Potanin the same period of trying for recognition, of his medal-winning honour.

Why did it take so long for the French to coin Potanin’s medal? Was it the case, as Dryden rhymed, of bitter contention among the French officials on the board of the medal-issuing Legion:

“Never did art so well with nature strive
Nor ever idol seemed so much alive;
So like the man, so golden to the sight,
So base within, so counterfeit and light.”

Now counterfeit cannot have been the word, when one of France’s largest banks, Societe Generale (SocGen), announced that it intends to take over the bank which Potanin and Prokhorov own in Moscow, called Rosbank. Just eight years old, this has risen from the ashes of their earlier property, Uneximbank, which speculated heavily on Potanin’s inside knowledge of Russian government bond and current policy, and collapsed into default and bankruptcy in 1998.

According to announcements starting in mid-2006, SocGen will take over Rosbank by the year 2008. Meantime, between June and September last year, the French paid Potanin and Prokhorov $634 million for a 20% stake of the bank, and signed a call option, allowing SocGen to take 50% plus 2 shares of the bank by 2008. This also provides for Interros to take a cross-shareholding in the French bank.

Was this exchange of gold the relationship which Donnedieu de Vabres characterized, in Potanin’s presence, as “stronger than diplomatic relations”? Was it a reminder to the erect legionnaires under Donnedieu’s command that Potanin’s dimly recalled philanthropy had gone without its worthy reward?

Donnedieu de Vabres is not a recognized name in Moscow, where, since Prokhorov’s liberation, it is widely suspected he was taken hostage by the French for a crime Russians believe is nothing more than a harmless recreation for an unmarried man. If hostage-taking it was, noone in Moscow has speculated that Donnedieu de Vabres might have had anything to do with the ransom.

Among the many things not known about him in Moscow, for example, is that in 2004, after a lengthy criminal investigation and court proceedings, Donnedieu de Vabres was convicted of money laundering. What he had done apparently was to receive money paid illegally in connexion with a French arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The money appears to have ended up in the coffers of his political party, at the time of political campaign need.

Donnedieu’s conviction did not interrupt his service to the state, but from the conviction he acquired the nickname, “ministre blanchisseur” — the laundry minister.

Donnedieu is also a target in French public life for what, in the Dryden rhyme, is the hypocrisy that “allows no sins but those it can conceal”.

Let us heed the sensibilities of young and innocent readers which might be upset, and the prurience of their seniors unworthily aroused, if the sexual details of Donnedieu’s private life are published at this point. For it is not they which cause his reputation to be called into public question; but rather his opposition to a law intended to improve the legal status of those who conduct themselves, as he may do, in their own boudoirs. This is conduct that Dryden anticipated from “the man who laughed but once, to see an ass/Mumbling to make the cross-grained thistles pass/Might laugh again to see a jury chaw/The prickles of unpalatable law.”

In the hours that passed before Donnedieu de Vabres received Potanin in their Paris medal-pinning ceremony, there can be no possibility that the minister might have laughed at the fate of Potanin’s partner Prokhorov. Nor can the differences in their sexual orientation towards the law have been of any relevance to their wits.

But January 30, the day of Potanin’s medal, is a titillating date. More than a seemly interval had passed since Potanin and Prokhorov had consummated their two most prominent gifts to French culture — the St.Petersburg show, and the SocGen shareholding transfer. If a French medal had been deserving on either occasion, it was long overdue.

Those with understanding of the special gifts which Donnedieu de Vabres has made it his political business to handle, along with connoisseurs of coincidence, are thus left to wonder whether the ball and chain that were fastened to Prokhorov’s foot in Lyon was also tied to the medal pinned to Potanin’s chest in Paris?

Does Sarkozy’s knowledge of the case presuppose a plan to take Prokhorov hostage, in order that a ransom for his release would be paid by Potanin to Donnedieu de Vabres, who may then have issued Sarkozy’s grateful receipt in the form of the medal?

Crudely remembered is the Cossack trooper’s demand for service, when Russians occupied Paris after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. Thus has the Russian word for “quick” become the French word for a fast-service restaurant. How many times was Prokhorov heard to utter this word for release from his jail-cell, and how swiftly did Potanin wrack his brains and his contact file to liberate his partner?

If this has been a quartet of the lower and higher forms of greed — in Sarkozy’s case, not yet concluded — let Dryden’s fingers play the finale: “We loathe our manna, and we long for quails;/Ah! what is man, when his own wish prevails!”

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