Press Release / March 17, 2003

Elf trial throws spotlight on oil and corruption

Today, a High Court in Paris put thirty-seven former officials of government-owned oil company Elf Aquitaine on trial for embezzling millions of francs of company assets in a web of secret deals across the world between 1989 and 1993. The trial is the culmination of eight years of investigations into influence-peddling and profiteering by political and business elites across Europe, Central America and Africa.

Prosecuting lawyer Renaud van Ruymbeke will seek to show how Elf acted as a “pompe à finance” (an ‘engine of finance’) to pump money into the pockets of corrupt individuals and governments. For example, Monsieur Alfred Sirven, one of the main defendants, is alleged to have used 350 million francs in a Swiss slush fund to provide huge commissions to those involved. His testimony may be explosive: Monsieur Sirven alleged that he has “enough evidence to blow up the Republic twenty times over”.

The flipside of the trial in France is that the ordinary citizens of desperately poor countries like Angola have seen their oil income embezzled and squandered with the complicity of Elf and others. If oil companies do not publish their payments to national governments, it is impossible for the citizens of such countries to call their government to account over gross financial mismanagement or any missing money.

Global Witness director Simon Taylor said, “no-one in the business pretends that Elf is alone in such unscrupulous behaviour. I hope this trial will expose and then change the mindset of the oil business globally. If companies were required to openly and accountably declare their payments to governments, these dirty deals would have been detected and sanctioned a long time ago.”

The UK Government’s recent Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative offers the chance to address the flawed accounting and secret deals epitomised by Elf. Global Witness now calls upon the French Government and TotalfinaElf to endorse the initiative. The French Government should also move it forwards in the G8 as they hold the Presidency. Only by bringing in national and international regulations to ensure transparency of payments between oil companies and national governments can scandals like that involving Elf be avoided in the future.

Please contact Simon Taylor or Gavin Hayman on +44 (0)20 7272 6731 or +44 (0)7957 142 121 for more information.

Notes to the Editor

(1) Global Witness focuses on the links between the exploitation of natural resources and the funding of conflict and corruption. Global Witness is one of the founder members of the Publish What You Pay (PWYP) campaign of over 90 NGOs that are calling for governments, especially those in the G8, to take leadership and promote transparency over resource revenues worldwide (see The coalition is calling for Northern stock market regulators to require resource extraction companies to report their net payments to all governments as a condition for being listed on stock markets. The PWYP coalition is participating in the UK Government’s ‘Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative’, which is exploring options to promote transparency and wise use of oil, mining and gas revenues worldwide (see

2) Elf was founded in France in 1966 under the presidency of Charles de Gaulle. It soon became the most influential company in the country and its business operations became (too) intricately linked with the French foreign policy. The company is now publicly-owned and has merged to form TotalFinaElf. The latter is contesting the allegations and seeks to differentiate the past behaviour of those on trial with its present management. Global Witness sees their leadership on revenue to transparency will be a test-case for this commitment.