The recent flap in Paris regarding five C.I.A. operatives who allegedly tried to bribe their way into the very center of government policy-making should not be interpreted as a Gaullist revival. When Charles Pasqua, the colorful Interior Minister, attacked American spying, he was not striking a blow against U.S. domination. He was trying to divert attention from a scandal in which he was implicated and which threatened the presidential campaign of his boss, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. That could explain the French breach of espionage etiquette, which says that “friends and allies” do not wash their dirty linen In public. The diversion, however, does not mean that the charges against the C.I.A. were trumped up.
That Balladur needs such a smokescreen goes to show that in electoral politics a month is an eternity. At the beginning of February, pollsters had proclaimed that Balladur’s election as President in the upcoming vote was a foregone conclusion. But what looked like a coronation has now become an open race with a real element of suspense. The three front-runners–Balladur; Jacques Chirac, his colleague and bitter rival in the neo-Gaullist R.P.R.; and the Socialist Lionel Jospin–are neck and neck, each clocking 22 percent in the latest polls, and it is uncertain which two will qualify for the runoff.
How did Balladur squander his big lead? The Teflon Prime Minister was transformed Into a bungling candidate. He provoked students with proposals they were bound to dislike, and when they turned out m the streets he surrendered. in the heat of electoral battle his haughty aloofness became a handicap. And he failed to disentangle himself from financial scandals surrounding his government.
The latest of these involves kickbacks paid to the R.P.R. in the Paris region in exchange for public works contracts. As long as the trail led to City Hall, that is, to Balladur’s rival, Mayor Chirac, the examining magistrate was allowed to proceed. But when he began to probe the posh suburbs of Hauts-de-Seine, Pasqua’s political fief, the affair became a farce worthy of Inspector Clouseau. The scenario included the magistrate’s sex-therapist father-in-law and a bribe of nearly $200,000 in numbered bills offered to him by a Pasqua ally, with the police showing up just in time for the money to be exchanged. The crude plot, which depended on police bugging, almost worked, since as soon as it happened newspapers were suggesting that the awkward magistrate be taken off the case. At that point, President Mitterrand intervened, asking the highest court to determine whether the police had engaged in entrapment. It turned out the cops had broken the rules, notably wiretapping without authorization. The head of the judiciary police was forced to resign; Pasqua, his superior, was in trouble; and, since Pasqua was a crucial element in Balladur’s electoral struggle against Chirac, he had to claim that the investigation of the magistrate had been lawful and then eat his words. At this juncture Le Monde conveniently stole the limelight with its front-page story about the five American spies.
The agents, four of them with diplomatic cover, were apparently aiming high. They tried to bribe members of senior politicians’ personal staffs, including the Prime Minister’s. Their targets were also significant: the French government’s positions on the GATT negotiations, TV and film rights and telecommunications, the latest source of big profits. French spooks actually caught their American counterparts in the act. They were getting revenge for colleagues apprehended stealing industrial secrets in the States and for more recent American successes. Last year C.I.A. agents helped Raytheon beat a French rival out of a radar contract in Brazil; they also helped Boeing and McDonnell Douglas underbid an Airbus consortium for a major contract in Saudi Arabia. In the good old days of the cold war our agents claimed to defend a rather abstract “free enterprise.” Now they are nakedly the servants of big business. The C.I.A. may soon be made a branch of the Commerce Department, and 007 could become James Bond, supersalesman for the British Board of Trade.