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France 24
France 24

The con artist and the WWI war chest: How the French secret service wound up in a blackmail scandal

Bernard Bajolet, a French diplomat and former head of the country’s foreign intelligence service DGSE, pictured at the Élysée Palace in Paris on September 1, 2022. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

It has all the elements of the perfect spy novel – a secret war chest, an immoral businessman and daring blackmail attempts. An explosive investigative report on Wednesday blew the lid off of what may be one of the French foreign intelligence service’s best-kept secrets: how it allegedly got swindled by a smooth-talking con artist and sent agents to threaten and extort him.

The details of the extraordinary saga began emerging late Tuesday evening, when news broke that Bernard Bajolet, the former head of the French foreign intelligence agency (DGSE), had been indicted back in October for his complicity in an extortion attempt.

Bajolet, who led the DGSE between 2013 and 2017, was also accused of “arbitrary infringement of personal liberty by a person holding public authority over the same case”, a source told the AFP news agency which, along with daily newspaper Le Monde, was among the first to report on the news.

‘Might find you in a wheelchair’

On Wednesday, Le Monde published a long investigative piece on the background to Bajolet’s indictment, and the riveting details it contained did not disappoint.

The charges reportedly relate to a March 12, 2016 incident in which French border police prevented a Franco-Swiss businessman, Alain Duménil, from boarding a flight to Geneva under the pretext that he had been subject to identity theft.

According to Duménil, whose lawyers have since brought charges, the officers took him to an interview room at Charles de Gaulle international airport where two DGSE agents were waiting for him. He was questioned for six minutes and given a two-week deadline to pay the agency €13 million, plus another €2 million in interest, which they accused him of having “stolen from the state”.  

Duménil says they went on to issue a series of veiled threats, with one of the agents telling Duménil he might be found in a wheelchair one day, all the while holding a plastic folder containing photographs taken of him, his family and his friends in both London and Geneva. “They wanted me to understand that they could also attack any of these people,” he said in an account partially drawn on by Le Monde.

Bajolet has admitted authorising the interview, but said its only purpose was to get hold of Duménil’s lawyers, not to intimidate or blackmail him.

What really went on in that room that day remains to be confirmed.

Secret war chest

But the story dates back much further than 2016, and has, according to the newspaper, its roots in a secret war chest that the French state had entrusted to the French secret services at the end of World War I.

Throughout the decades, the fund grew more or less organically, but at the end of the 1990s, the service decided to try its hand at accelerating the growth by betting on an investment group called EK Finance (EKF) via three different holding companies. EKF invested in everything from clothing to cosmetics and jewelry, mainly in the luxury sector. But these investments soon turned sour, and EKF started racking up huge losses, prompting DGSE – which is estimated to have poured over €20 million into the project – to try to cut its losses.

“The DGSE should have invested in brick, not panties! The luxury market is light years away from its culture,” EKF’s former manager, François Barthes, said, as cited in the report.

In the early 2000s, after having been ordered to recover its initial investment, a banker recommended that the DGSE solicit Duménil's help via its three holding companies in EKF.  At the time, he was reputed to be a talented and wealthy businessman, but later became better known for his dubious financial tactics and twice convicted of financial crimes. 

And this is where DGSE’s financial woes got even worse.

‘A con man’

The DGSE entered a deal under which it exchanged its EKF holdings with shares in Duménil’s company which was purportedly due to go public. Only, Duménil - who was kept in the dark of the real identity of his new investor - had other plans. Instead, he quickly stripped his company of its assets and filed for bankruptcy – filling his own pockets but leaving DGSE with nothing.

“He’s a notorious con man,” Bernard Emié, DGSE´s current director, who has been called up as a witness in the case, testified in the documents seen by Le Monde.

Since then, the DGSE has desperately been trying to get its money back, both via the courts and negotiating – efforts that have so far proved futile.

"Each time we approached him, he told us: 'I don't give a damn’," Alain Juillet, head of DGSE’s intelligence unit, said.

Which leads us to the present day, with DGSE suspected of having opted for other, perhaps more illicit tactics.

In a written response to AFP on Wednesday, DGSE reiterated its denial of “having exercised any type of threat” during the airport interview, but described Duménil as an “international wheeler-dealer and delinquent”.

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