October 14, 2011 10:04 pm

Tyrants’ Paris: the tour

The choicest bits of the west’s great cities belong, in part, to foreign dictators

It’s very near here,” Daniel Lebègue, head of the anti-corruption group Transparency International in France, gestures to the chic streets outside his Parisian office window. He’s pointing to where African dictators live. “It’s their neighbourhood: the eighth arrondissement, the 16th. They come here to party. But for francophone rulers of Africa, it’s more than that. France is the place where they imagined retiring one day. That’s why they bought their houses here.”

This hidden Paris is now emerging thanks to Transparency International and some interesting police findings. The group and other parties filed a criminal suit in 2008 accusing various African dictators of possessing stolen assets in France. The highest French court eventually accepted the case, which is still to be heard. By now police and judges have dug up so much information that someone should start offering tours of tyrants’ Paris, just as you can tour movie stars’ homes in Hollywood. “Tyrant tours” would also work in Manhattan or London. (The Mubaraks weren’t the only rulers who liked Knightsbridge.) The choicest bits of the west’s great cities belong, in part, to foreign dictators. We complain about these people, but we need them.

Let’s start with the man who after the clearout of the Arab spring is now Africa’s longest-serving ruler: President Teodoro Obiang, boss of little Equatorial Guinea since 1979. “He’s the most extravagant,” says Lebègue.

Equatorial Guinea is blessed with oil, or at least the Obiangs are. The country has an income per capita of nearly $15,000, or more precisely about $1 a day for almost everyone who isn’t an Obiang. One in five Equatorial Guinean children dies before age five. The Obiangs escape the misery in Paris. The president’s son, Teodorin, enjoys auctions at Christie’s. He had also built up a lovely car collection, although regrettably last month French police seized 11 of his vehicles (including Aston Martins, Bugattis and a Rolls-Royce) from his residence at 42 Avenue Foch.

Our tour would then take in the 18 French properties of Denis Sassou Nguesso, ruler of Congo-Brazzaville, and his family. (Unfortunately their 112 bank accounts are not open to visitors.) The president cares about the needy: in New York in 2006 he ran up a hotel bill of $295,000 with his entourage, just to give a five-minute speech on poverty at the United Nations. His family particularly likes the chic Parisian suburb of Courbevoie. Few of their French assets are in the modest president’s own name. “My children are adults,” he shrugs. “Their lives are not mine.”

Then there are the Bongos, ruling family of Gabon since 1967. It’s hard work, and the Bongos like to relax in their estimated 39 French properties. Like many dictators they adore Avenue Foch, though last year they also picked up an hôtel particulier in the seventh arrondissement. “Very beautiful,” says Lebègue. “They paid €18m. They said, ‘Well, maybe one day we’ll put our ambassador there.’”

Our tour also hopes to feature Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president since 1982. Last year a Cameroonian diaspora group had the audacity to file suit against him in France, trying to map his portfolio and see whether he is keeping up with the Bongos.

All this is just a start. The Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan who ruled Tunisia were devout francophiles. Various Gaddafis enjoyed Paris and Nice. “There were often confrontations with French police,” Lebègue notes, “because they were people living beyond the law.”

Much more B-list is Haiti’s former dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier. An expensive divorce left him penniless in a rundown Parisian suburb. Recently he left to help rebuild Haiti. And the Mugabes are banned from visiting the European Union at all. Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, may not even miss Paris after her distressing pre-ban visit to Salvatore Ferragamo on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré: another African ruler’s wife had popped in the previous day and snapped up almost all shoes in Grace’s size.

Mugabe’s mistake was to turn against the west, just as Ben Ali’s was to lose power. If you stay president and stay nice to France, France will mostly stay nice to you. Indeed, the Senegalese-born lawyer Robert Bourgi, long-time French intermediary to Africa, last month claimed to have delivered “tens of millions of francs each year” from various African leaders for the election campaigns of France’s then president Jacques Chirac. The money flowed until 2005, says Bourgi. Chirac, who denies these allegations and has instructed his lawyer to sue Bourgi for defamation, incidentally still lives in the dream house on Paris’s Quai Voltaire that he borrowed from the family of Lebanon’s late prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2007. Chirac moved in after vacating the presidential palace, saying he’d only stay until he’d found his own place. A former neighbour of mine here in Paris helps guard the Hariri house.

Countless Parisian shopkeepers, car dealers and prostitutes must owe their jobs to foreign rulers. Transparency International wants France, Britain and other host countries to crack down on these guests, but we’re short enough on funds and friends as is.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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