By Jonathan Power*
Early December 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 the Red Cross. The Red Cross said they never received a donation from him.
Those obituaries which did mention this restricted the mention to 2 or 3 lines. Yet at the time it was the event that consumed the French media and profoundly influenced the voters who in droves voted for the Socialist candidate, Francois Mitterrand. Without this scandal, Giscard would probably have won the presidency again.
Bokassa was a wilder creation than could ever have been thought up by John Updike or Evelyn Waugh, even in their most satirical moments. A man who could cut off the ears of his prisoners murdered his former finance minister in the privacy of his ornate palace, who would receive the French ambassador in his underwear and would conduct a serious conversation with him in an empty room in the palace, furnished only with a mattress. No novelist could have created such a character. Yet this was only a part of him.
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.”
No one will ever know the precise truth of the degree of Bokassa’s bestiality, a man who considered himself as the “father protector of children” who in this impoverished country had himself crowned emperor with a golden crown and a golden throne specially made in France with French “aid”. There is no good reason to doubt eye-witness reports that he kept pieces of his victims in his refrigerator and feasted on them in private orgies.
The discovery and exposure of the child-murders were one of Amnesty’s major breakthroughs. Not only did Amnesty reveal one of the most horrific events of the last century, the disclosure also provoked the French government into sending in paratroopers to depose a tyrant who had become an embarrassment.
I spent two months researching what went on for my book on the history of Amnesty International. (“Like Water on Stone” published by Penguin.)
Bokassa hit the news every so often, but by and large, the world passed him by. The French government, which kept itself well informed, kept its information to itself. The press was not greatly interested in this African backwater. Amnesty maintained its watch, almost alone, as it does on dozens of other seemingly unimportant countries.
The Amnesty alert began in early 1979. In mid-February Amnesty was receiving reports suggesting that heads of schools and lycées had been arrested, as well as an unknown number of pupils. As they gathered further evidence Amnesty became convinced that more than one hundred school children had been arrested and then disappeared, following protests against a government decree that demanded they purchase expensive school uniforms.
Amnesty concluded they had been taken to the central prison where they were held in such crowded conditions that between 12 and 28 of them were reported as having died from suffocation. Other children were reported to have been stoned by members of the Imperial Guard to punish them for throwing stones as 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. It supported the sending of the fact-finding team of African jurists. When their report came out Giscard D’Estaing sent in paratroopers to depose Bokassa.
There was, the 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 the present of diamonds from Bokassa. (Today’s value would be about one million US dollars.)
Giscard did not deny it at first. His press statement was an ambivalent declaration that amounted in the eyes of some observers to a confession. 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 to hijack his papers and correspondence before Bokassa could blackmail him. This was witnessed by a number of 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 loved 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 rhino. (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. In the context of the politics of the time this was an important consideration. 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, before Giscard, President Charles de Gaulle had praised Bokassa to the roof.
After the French invasion Bokassa fled into exile in the 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 too, for connivance. Anyway, Giscard got his come-uppance. Although only young when he stepped down from the presidency at the age of 56, he never again held high elective office. The cloud over his Bokassa dealings never went away.
* The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com