The Daily Telegraph
November 18, 2005
One of France’s most distinguished diplomats has confessed to an investigating judge that he accepted oil allocations from Saddam Hussein, it emerged yesterday.
Jean-Bernard Merimee is thought to be the first senior figure to admit his role in the oil-for-food scandal, a United Nations humanitarian aid scheme hijacked by Saddam to buy influence.
The Frenchman, who holds the title “ambassador for life,” told authorities that he regretted taking payments amounting to $156,000 in 2002.
The money was used to renovate a holiday home he owned in southern Morocco. At the time, Mr. Merimee was a special adviser to Secretary-General Annan. According to yesterday’s Le Figaro, he told judge Philippe Courroye during an interview on October 12: “I should not have done what I did. I regret it.”
But he also said that the payments were made in recompense for work he had done on Iraq’s behalf. “All trouble is worth a wage,” he is reported to have said. No decisions have been announced about possible criminal charges against Mr. Merimee. He told the judge that he did not declare the income to the tax authorities, according to Le Figaro.
So far, the only top figure to have acknowledged that he was offered such oil allocations was Rolf Ekeus, the former head of the U.N. inspection team which uncovered some of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s. Mr. Ekeus, a famously straitlaced Swede, laughed off the offer.
Mr. Merimee, who was French ambassador to Australia, Italy, India, and the U.N., told the judge that after he was retired by the French foreign ministry he began working for a Moroccan bank, BMCE. It was owed large sums by Saddam’s regime.
In 1999, he flew to Baghdad to discuss repayment and met Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, who offered to use oil-for-food money.
But that idea was swiftly rejected by BCME’s president, who said any such deal would provoke American wrath.
Instead, the Frenchman said he decided to go into business “on his own behalf.” He added: “Tariq Aziz recognised the interest I had taken in Iraq, and the advice I had given him.”
The ambassador said the French authorities had known of his every move.
France has been gravely embarrassed by oil-for-food allegations against senior figures, including former interior minister Charles Pasqua.