I took Saddam's cash, admits French envoy
By Francis Harris in Washington and David Rennie in Brussels
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 Mérimée 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 (then worth about £108,000) in 2002.
The money was used to renovate a holiday home he owned in southern Morocco. At the time, Mr Mérimée was a special adviser to Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general.
According to yesterday's Le Figaro, he told judge Philippe Courroye during an interview on Oct 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 Mérimée. He told the judge that he did not declare the income to the tax authorities, according to Le Figaro.
George Galloway, the Respect MP, has been accused of accepting similar payments by investigators working for the UN and the US Senate, but has denied that he accepted any benefit.
So far, the only top figure to have acknowledged that he was offered such oil allocations was Rolf Ekeus, the former head of the UN inspection team that uncovered some of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s. Mr Ekeus, a famously strait-laced Swede, laughed off the offer.
Mr Mérimée, who was French ambassador to Australia, Italy, India and the UN, 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 Charles Pasqua, the former interior minister. He has denied receiving any benefit from the oil allocations issued in his name.
Inquiries have also found that French firms benefited disproportionately from oil-for-food contracts as part of an Iraqi policy to influence French votes on the UN Security Council.
Supporters of President George W Bush accuse France of putting its foreign policy up for sale and opposing the invasion of Iraq for commercial reasons. That has been fiercely denied in Paris.
Mr Mérimée did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Telegraph.