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France: Big Stink

3 minute read

Scandal over “sniffer planes ”

At issue are two electronic devices, code-named Delta and Omega.

When mounted in an airplane, they were supposed to be able to detect undersea oil deposits from altitudes as high as 21,000 ft. Elf-Aquitaine, France’s state-owned petroleum company, spent more than $150 million for research and development on the equipment in the 1970s. Yet no oil was ever found. In fact, there is no evidence that ‘ the expensive devices worked at all. A Belgian count who sold them to Elf has vanished, along with the money. As a result, the leftist government of President Francois Mitterrand is accusing its center-right predecessor of lying and incompetence, an investigation has been launched, and the French public is savoring the oddest political scandal in years.

The sniffer-planes affair leaped into public attention last month with an article in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine. The Mitterrand government, under fire for its management of the limp French economy, suddenly found itself in a position to lambaste the previous administration, led by Valery Giscard d’Estaing. But even before Mitterrand could capitalize on the disclosure, Giscard went on national television to deny any wrongdoing. He implied that others, notably his Premier, Raymond Barre, were more directly involved. Barre, in response, insisted that the affair had to remain shrouded in secrecy “for defense reasons.”

The mess evidently began in 1968, when Aldo Bonassoli, a telephone-company electrician in Ventimiglia, Italy, convinced Count Alain de Villegas, a wealthy private investor, that he could develop a technique for discovering oil from the air. A French intelligence agent learned of the project, and the Giscard government decided that it might be useful for detecting submarines. Villegas signed the first of a number of contracts with Elf-Aquitaine, and payments were made into secret Swiss bank accounts.

The deal came unraveled in 1978, when an independent expert hired by Elf declared that Delta and Omega were useless. Former Premier Barre approved a secret investigation, and a report was issued. Chief Government Accountant Bernard Beck discreetly shredded his three copies of the report when he retired in 1982; only Giscard and Barre are known to have kept copies, which they took with them into private life.

Barre finally made a copy available to the government (Giscard still has not). At a Jan. 2 news conference, Premier Pierre Mauroy waved the document before the cameras while he accused the Giscard government of being duped and then trying to engineer a coverup. Since then, the war of words has escalated. In another TV broadside, Giscard declaimed: “Francois Mitterrand is no longer qualified to represent the country. The present government came to power through lies. It is trying to maintain itself by lies.” Disdaining a reply, Mitterrand has preferred, as the pro-government daily Le Monde put it, “to preserve his virginity in this affair while encouraging the government to move to the front with it.” Meanwhile, Count de Villegas’s chateau outside Brussels was burglarized last week, and his files were rifled by what Belgian police describe as “professionals.” In Ventimiglia, Italian authorities offered police protection to would-be inventor Bonassoli after noticing unknown people around his house. Bonassoli, who left Villegas’s employ in 1979 after a falling-out over money, reported that he is still perfecting the oil-detection device. But, says he, “I won’t work with the French again. They mix science and politics. I am a scientist; politics does not interest me.”

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