By Johnathan Power, a foreign affairs columnist

Early this month the former president of France Valery Giscard D’Estaing died. The Guardian in its obituary described him as “the grand old man of French politics”. President Emanuel Macron said, “his presidency had transformed France and his direction still guides its way”. The New York Times said he was “a modern-minded conservative”.

Unlike many of the other obituaries the New York Times failed to mention the scandal that was a major factor in bringing him down when he ran for a second term in 1981. He was accused and it was proved that he had accepted a gift of diamonds from Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic valued at about quarter of a million US dollars. Giscard said he gave the money away to charities in the Central African Republic including to never received a donation from him.  the Red Cross. The Red Cross said they

Those obituaries which did mention the scandal, restricted it to 2 or 3 lines. Yet at the time it was the event that consumed the French media and profoundly influenced the voters who voted in droves for the Socialist candidate, Francois Mitterrand. Without this scandal, Giscard would have probably been re-elected.

Bokassa was a wilder creation than could ever have been thought up. A man who could cut off the ears of his prisoners, murder his former finance minister in his ornate palace, receive the French ambassador in his underwear, and conduct a serous conversation with him in an empty room in the palace furnished only with a mattress. Neither novelist John Updike or Evelyn Waugh, even in their most satirical moments, could have created such a character. Yet this was only a part of Bokassa.

According to a Commission of Inquiry consisting of five senior African jurists, sent into the country in the wake of revelations by Amnesty International of the murder of children, “riots in Bangui, the capital city, were suppressed with great cruelty by the security forces and in April 1979 about a hundred children were massacred at the order of Emperor Bokassa, who almost certainly participated in the killings.”

The discovery and exposure of the child-murders was one of Amnesty’s major breakthroughs. Not only did Amnesty reveal one of the most horrific events of the last century but the disclosure also provoked the French government into sending paratroopers to depose a tyrant who had become an embarrassment.

[I found information about Bokassa while on a two-month research for my book on the history of Amnesty International titled, “Like Water On Stone”, published by Penguin].

While the press was not greatly interested in this African backwater, Amnesty International maintained its watch, almost alone, as it does on dozens of other seemingly unimportant countries. Amnesty alert began in early 1979 and by mid-February, it was receiving reports suggesting that heads of schools and lycées as well as unknown number of pupils had been arrested. Upon gathering further evidence, Amnesty became convinced that more than one hundred school children who protested a government decree demanding them to purchase expensive school uniforms had been arrested and had disappeared.

Amnesty concluded that 12-28 children died from suffocation in a crowded central prison where they were held. Other children were reportedly stoned by members of the Imperial Guard for allegedly throwing stones at the Emperor’s car. Some were bayoneted or beaten to death.

Amnesty put out a press release and the press leapt on the story. Bokassa, the child-murderer, was page one news. The French foreign minister was more cautious. He talked of “conflicting reports” and his colleague, the minister of co-operation talked of “pseudo-events”.

Under media and parliamentary pressure, the government tried to defuse the accusations by supporting the sending of a fact-finding team of African jurists. When their report came out Giscard D’Estaing sent in paratroopers to depose Bokassa.

Evidence suggested a crude element of self-interest in this. Giscard over the years had formed a close personal link with Bokassa. The French journal, Le Canard Enchaine, revealed that it had documents proving that Giscard had accepted diamond presents from Bokassa worth about one million US dollars today.

Giscard did not deny it at first. His press statement was an ambivalent declaration that amounted to a confession to some observers. He said that it was usual for presents to be exchanged when members of a government visited foreign countries but they “never had the character nor the value mentioned in the press”.

The scandal gave rise to a theory, as French scandals always do, that Giscard sent in the paratroopers not only to depose Bokassa, but also to hijack his papers and correspondence before Bokassa could blackmail him reportedly witnessed by several French correspondents.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Giscard’s relationship with Bokassa had been unusually close and Bokassa was adept, politically at least, at exploiting it. Giscard love to hunt in Bokassa’s private forests. A large tract of jungle in the east of the country, accessible only by private plane, was Giscard’s “chasse gardee”. Often accompanied by Bokassa, he would shoot elephants, giraffes, and the rare white rhinos. (Bokassa claimed in an interview in the Washington Post just before the French election, that he gave Giscard a 3,000-square-mile hunting preserve.)

Giscard made things worse by choosing the Central African Republic for his first visit as president to Africa. He was the first head of state to congratulate Bokassa on his crowning. Bokassa’s strength in Giscard’s eyes was that he was staunchly anti-communist. This was an important consideration when many African countries had turned towards Moscow. The Soviet Union had a large embassy in Bangui, and Bokassa enjoyed teasing France by doing deals with the Soviets. With Libya too, he played fast and loose. When Muammar Gaddafi visited him, he announced he had become a Muslim again, a reminder to France of his real worth. The French government went out of its way to placate him by word and deed. Indeed, even before Giscard, President Charles de Gaulle had praised Bokassa to the roof.

After the French invasion, Bokassa fled into exile in Cote d’Ivoire. He was sentenced to death in absentia on Christmas Eve, 1980. Eight years later, to everyone’s surprise, he voluntarily returned home. He was tried again and received the death sentence. This was commuted to life imprisonment. Three years later he died of natural causes.

If Bokassa were alive today and committing such crimes he could have been arrested for crimes against humanity and tried before the World Criminal Court. Perhaps Giscard could have been arrested to, for connivance. Anyway, Giscard got his come-uppance. Although he stepped down from the presidency at a young age of 56, he never again held high elective office. The cloud over his Bokassa dealings never went away.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.