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Clean Pair of hands by Oscar Reynard Chapter 1

A Clean Pair of Hands by Oscar Reynard.
‘Every man has two countries, his own and France’ Thomas Jefferson

France is the most visited tourist destination in the world, with over 79 million arrivals in 2011. Those tourists expect to enjoy a closer view and sample a country known the world over for its gastronomy, sophisticated Paris fashions and luxury goods, adult fun, quaint rustic communities living in golden stone medieval villages, Provence under sunny skies, chateaux proudly proclaiming an illustrious past, art in all its forms, the Tour de France and occasional accordion music. France is a meeting point for northern and southern European cultures and this is evident in the ongoing confrontation between the population and authority, a fight that takes the form of brazenly challenging rules and boundaries, and by high levels of assertiveness when working around any obstacles that confront people in their daily lives. What is it like to live and work there? What most tourists may not appreciate is the deeprooted distrust that the French have towards their government and authorities, which explains their individualistic reaction to rules and constraints imposed by their leadership.

What lies behind this distrust? Probity in public life is low on the French achievements list, for although successive governments proclaim themselves to be ‘open and transparently democratic’, this is far from the truth. According to the Transparency International Corruption Index for 2013, France has improved significantly since the Mitterrand era but is still only ranked 22nd in the world. Before anybody thinks this is merely a finger pointing exercise, the USA is 19th, and Great Britain 14th.  We all have a long way to go, but Denmark and New Zealand, 1st equal, show that reasonable levels of probity in public life can be achieved, despite human weaknesses. In a modern society, social networks and hacking make it increasingly harder to keep dirty secrets and as knowledge of corruption in public life trickles down to every individual, one could assume that if it is known about and tolerated, it must be OK. But how does that situation affect public attitudes? What can the electorate do to re-orientate their leaders?

A French song lyric by Jacques Dutronc derisively articulates the irony:

Madame L’Existence Je voudrais m’acheter une démocratie
Je voudrais m’acheter le meilleur d’une vie
Je voudrais m’acheter de la liberté
Et puis un peu de fraternité.
On n’a pas ce genre d’articles
Vous vous trompez de boutique
Ici c’est pas la république.’ [Sic] French singer/songwriter Jacques Dutronc 2003

‘Lady Life I’d like to buy myself a democracy
I’d like to buy the best of life
I’d like to buy some liberty
And then a bit of fraternity.
But we don’t have those kinds of things in stock
You are in the wrong shop
This is not the republic.’

This novel recounts how a driven man carves out his individual lifestyle in France, with potentially dramatic consequences for himself, his wife and family. For individuals, families and presidents who steer dangerously close to an edge where they may lose control, those consequences are not always direct or immediate. They can strike suddenly and unexpectedly or, in many cases, retrospectively. For readers to understand why the characters behave the way they do, we can refer to public life revelations that are now crawling to the surface of our news media and see what’s considered normal and acceptable in France and when a social or moral line is deemed to have been crossed. Let’s take a look at some examples of behaviour of the French leadership, and ask how you might react when those in authority so brazenly treat public money as their own and are prepared to bend rules to grasp and retain power. Based on the evidence, how should we describe the French governing class for the last thirty years?

Kleptocracies are generally associated with corrupt forms of authoritarian governments. Kleptocratic rulers typically treat their country’s treasury as though it were their own personal bank account, spending the funds as they see fit, and also secretly transferring public funds into personal bank accounts in foreign countries in order to provide them with continued luxury if/when they are eventually removed from power and forced to leave the country. Source: Wikipedia

It was Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, who called an election, ‘…an advance auction of stolen goods.’ 

‘On 10th May 1981 François Mitterrand was elected President of France. He and his socialist entourage proved to be one of the most corrupt regimes in several generations. A foreigner might marvel at the indifference of the French electorate and powerlessness of the judiciary faced with systematic abuse of power on a massive scale at municipal and central government level, the fraudulent use of public money and its diversion into the accounts of individuals and phoney companies created uniquely for the redistribution of wealth towards party funds, the president’s personal purse, and those he wanted to keep in his service. A similar pattern of cash collection was networked throughout the municipal centres of France, channelling money to the centre via bogus companies set up for that purpose.’
Source: Jean Montaldo, ‘Mitterrand and the Forty Thieves’, Published by Albin Michel, 1994

‘The Urba consultancy was established in 1971 by the French Socialist Party to advise Socialist-led communes on infrastructure projects and public works. The Urba affair became public in 1989 when two police officers investigating the Marseille regional office of Urba discovered detailed minutes of the organisation’s contracts and division of proceeds between the party and elected officials. Although the minutes proved a direct link between Urba and graft activity, an edict from the office of President Mitterrand, himself listed as a recipient, prevented further investigation. In 1990 Mitterrand declared an amnesty for those under investigation, thus ending the affair. However, Socialist Party treasurer Henri Emmanuelli was tried in 1997 for corruption offences, for which he received a two year suspended sentence.’ The two investigating police officers were forced into retirement. Source: Wikipedia

Author’s note: This method of raising money continued unimpeded and indeed amplified under Jacques Chirac, and ex-president Nicholas Sarkozy is under investigation (in 2014) after his treasury team admitted that they had illegally used a fraudulent Public Relations consultancy, Bygmalion, to raise and channel payments ‘for services’ from clients into presidential election coffers. There is evidence that many large French businesses and public sector organisations were clients of Bygmalion, paying dearly for dubious services that were invoiced under a variety of headings, but which were either not used at all or had no direct value, but obviously the Directors must have thought that, on balance, the value to them in participating outweighed the risks of not doing so.

Chapter One A Mysterious Break-In December 1998

‘I have never believed in the absolute power of truth by itself. But it’s important to recognise that when the energy on both sides of the balance is equal, truth will win over lies.’ Albert Camus, Nobel Prize-winning author, journalist, and philosopher
The four cyclists parked their bicycles carefully and used them to climb over the high wall. The last one handed up a backpack and they quickly crossed the lawn and disappeared into shadows at the back of the house. There was a break-in at Michel and Charlotte Bodin’s home at Maisons Lafitte, in the Yvelines, to the north-west of Paris. Charlotte phoned her aunt, Thérèse Milton, a few days later to tell her that some masked men had broken in, beaten up Michel and locked her in a cupboard. She had been terrified but was unhurt. Michel was recovering from bruises and had been very withdrawn ever since. Thérèse expressed concern before asking, “What did they take?” “Nothing much, just some small items of jewellery and alcohol. There was no money in the house for them to take. They kept asking where the money was kept, but in the end they left with almost nothing of value.”

“Have the police caught anybody?” probed Thérèse. “So far they haven’t. Nobody saw anything.” It seemed an odd story, but in the absence of further information, Thérèse and her husband George Milton had no alternative but to be relieved that nothing worse had happened and to speculate on the rationale behind such an apparently pointless intrusion. They knew that their nephew, Michel, usually carried a large roll of bank notes with him. Why had the raiders not found that? Perhaps they had. And why had Charlotte said there was no money in the house? Nobody asked and there was no explanation.

Early on the Sunday morning immediately following the break-in, at around four am, Annick Bodin, at twenty-two the eldest of three daughters, returned to her parents’ home with two of her friends who intended to sleep over. They had a drink in the kitchen and quietly retired to Annick’s bedroom so as not to wake her parents.

Next morning, when Annick eventually began to move towards the kitchen, she was thinking that her parents usually went to bed late and slept in, especially on a Sunday morning when there was no housekeeper, but she still wondered why there were no sounds of anyone moving about. After making coffee, she went back upstairs and tapped on their bedroom door, entered, and found them, much as the intruders had left them.

When the police arrived, Annick opened the front door to find an unfit-looking man and a woman, probably in her mid-thirties, both with glum faces. Annick’s first impression was confused. The man wore a dark overcoat over a rumpled suit, with trousers that were too long, and a white shirt. His sticky black hair hung below his collar. The woman had unevenly dyed, short blonde hair, long brown leather boots over dark jeans, and a multi coloured knitted top with a generous loose collar which fell away from her neck. They introduced themselves as Francis and Paula, and Annick was wondering if they might be journalists until she saw the police markings on their car and the man described himself as ‘Head of Crime’. She let them in, and as they entered, Charlotte came to meet them in the hall, wrapping her dressing gown closer, and led them to the kitchen where Michel was staring into a large cup of coffee, holding a pack of frozen peas to the side of his head. Annick took up a position standing with her back to the sink and folded her arms nervously across her chest.

There was no circumlocution. No customer-care scripted sympathy. The officers drew up chairs, sat at the table, opened notebooks, and the man asked what had happened.
According to Charlotte, some men, probably four, had broken in through the garden room door, beaten up her husband and demanded to know where the money was kept. She had seen very little of what happened after that because they had thrown her into a cupboard and locked the door.
“Was there any money or a safe in the house?”
“Little money, and there is no safe.” “So what did they take?”
“Two new bottles of whisky that were on the bar.” She gestured in the direction of the salon. “We haven’t looked around the rest of the house yet.”
“What sort of whisky?” Michel raised his head. “One bottle of Chivas Regal and one bottle of Glenfiddich.” The officer attempted a glacial smile for the first time. “So you are saying that four masked men broke into your house to steal two bottles of whisky?”

“They took some cash from my wallet but left the credit cards,” added Michel.
“How much?” “About five thousand francs.”
“So not exactly a big haul. Can you describe the men in more detail? Did you hear them speak? How do you know they were men?”
Neither of the victims could add to the description of four masked people in black. None of them spoke and there were no identifying marks. “I thought you said they asked where the money was kept.”
There was a pause. Michel’s eyes flickered momentarily towards Charlotte.
“Yes, they did,” she responded.
“One of them, or several?”
“One of them.”
“Was it a French or foreign accent?”
“Maybe a slight foreign accent.”
“Go on.” The officer encouraged Charlotte to say more.
“I don’t know for sure, but it might have been North African.”
Charlotte slowly raised her handkerchief  to dab an eye, which was crying. She sniffed and looked down at the table.
“When you heard them speak, were you already locked in the cupboard?”
“No, they shouted when they first came into the bedroom and then put me in the cupboard.”
“Can either of you explain why it took from around two am, when you think the men left, till this morning before your daughter discovered you?”
They shook their heads and remained silent. The officer continued, “I know your mouths were taped, but did either of you make a noise so she might hear you?”
“I tried to bounce the chair and make a noise on the floor,” said Michel, “But I was too weak to lift it.”
“And you, Madame?” He turned to Charlotte. “Did you bang on the cupboard door or try to force the lock?”
“No, I was too frightened. I wasn’t sure if it was my daughter moving or the intruders looking around. I was aware of several people in the house, so I stayed quiet.”
The policeman continued, “During this period when you were alone, did you try to communicate with each other?”
“No, I didn’t know where my wife was. I didn’t see her put in the cupboard. It is on the landing outside the bedroom,” Michel explained.
“Mme Bodin, did you try to make a noise or communicate with your husband?”
“No, as I said, I was worried the men might still be in the house.”
“So even this morning, until your daughter found you, you believed that the burglars were still here?”
“I must have dozed, I can’t remember. It was dark in the cupboard.”
Turning to Annick, the policeman asked, “Do you have anything to add, Mademoiselle? Did you notice anything unusual when you arrived with your friends?” “No, nothing special. I didn’t see that the back door was unlocked. I was tired and I didn’t look around.”
“And where are your friends now?”
“They left when I called you. I had to go next door to make the call,” Annick responded.
“Can you give us their names and addresses?”
She did with the minimum of words and became silent again.
The two police officers diligently completed their notes, then raised their heads. “Do you mind if we look around now?”

Published by Clink Street Publishing 2015
Copyright © 2015
First edition.
The author asserts the moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior consent of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that with which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
ISBN: 978-1-909477-87-2
Ebook: 978-1-909477-88-9

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