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French billionaire 'hit with vote buying charges'

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French billionaire 'hit with vote buying charges'
French billionaire Serge Dassault, foreground, faces vote rigging charges. Photo: Thomas Samson
17:17 CEST+02:00
The billionaire French businessman Serge Dassault was charged on Thursday with vote buying and campaign finance violations in connection with a scheme to influence elections in the Parisian suburb where he was once mayor, sources said.

French billionaire industrialist and senator Serge Dassault has been charged with vote buying in his former fiefdom east of Paris, a judicial source told AFP on Thursday.

Dassault, 89, was questioned for two days in February in connection with allegations that he operated an extensive system of vote buying that influenced the outcome of elections in Corbeil-Essonnes, where he was mayor from 1995 to 2009.

The source said Dassault had been charged with vote buying, complicity in illegal election campaign financing and exceeding campaign spending limits. He is free without bail pending trial, the source said.

Sources close to Dassault refused to comment. The senator has previously denied any wrongdoing and vowed to prove his innocence.

The charges relate to three elections in Corbeil in 2008, 2009 and 2010, which were won either by Dassault or his successor and close associate Jean-Pierre Bechter.

Dassault is ranked by Forbes magazine as France's fourth-richest man and the 69th-richest in the world, with an estimated fortune of €13 billion ($18 billion).

He heads the Dassault Group, which owns the country's main right-wing newspaper Le Figaro and holds a majority stake in Dassault Aviation which makes commercial and military aircraft, including the Rafale fighter jet.

The result of the 2008 vote, won by Dassault, was invalidated by the Council of State after the body which oversees public administration discovered a series of payments which could have influenced the outcome.

Bechter has already been charged, as has Cristela de Oliveira, a former official in the mayor's office who is suspected of allocating council flats to families in return for backing Dassault or Bechter.

The investigation focused on about €7 million ($9.7 million) that may have ended up in the hands of intermediaries, including funds transferred from Lebanon.

A lawmaker from former president Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party, Dassault admits using his vast personal wealth to help residents of Corbeil, but denies any payouts were made in exchange for electoral support.

At least two men who claim to have been paid handsomely by Dassault to help organize the alleged vote buying have described a well-oiled electoral machine that targeted poorer families from immigrant backgrounds.

In return for support, residents could expect money for driving lessons -- a key to coveted municipal jobs -- or with finding accommodation subsidized by the local council, the men said.

French media have linked the scandal to two shootings in Corbeil last year which police are treating as attempted murders.

In 1998, Dassault received a two-year suspended prison sentence in Belgium for bribing members of the country's Socialist Party to win an army helicopter contract in what became known as the Agusta scandal.

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