Leading opposition newspapers charged today that President Vallery Giscard d'Estang received diamonds worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1973 from Jean-Bedel Bokassa, leader of the Central African Republic who was overthrown in a French-organized operation last month.
The Elysee Palace appeared indirectly to confirm the allegation, first made in the satirical weekly Canard Enchaine, by disputing the value of the gift, estimated at $250,000 by the newspaper. The paper said three members of Giscard's family also received diamonds.
French Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand immediately renewed a week-old demand for a parliamentary investigation into the involvement of high French officials with Bokassa.
The influential independent newspaper Le Monde joined the call for a probe, supporting the leftist satirical weekly. It added in a front-page editorial that its own reports from "numerous witnesses" supported the Canard's charges that after the recent coup, Bokassa's archives were transferred by French paratroops from his palace to the French Embassy in the Central African capital of Bangui.
The Canard said this was done to prevent leaks of scandals involving French officials.
Le Monde editorialized that the Bokassa archives should be moved quickly "to a more secure place than a French embassy."
At the National Assembly, there was a burst of activity as deputies considered whether Gaullist Party representatives would vote with the opposition in numbers sufficient to laucnch an investigation into the matter.
The most damaging part of the Canard Enchaine's full-page report appeared to be the photograph of a letter to the Central African Diamond Authority, on Bokassa's stationery and signed by him. It read, in full:
"Please deliver to Mrs. Dimitri, secretary of the presidency of the republic, a holder of about thirty (30) carats for Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, finance minister of the French Republic."
Le Monde's front-page editorial said that since the document appears authentic, "the only possible clarification would be to announce that this royal gift was returned to its sender."
The Elysee communique said simply, "Exchanges of gifts of a traditional character, notably during visits by members of the government to foreign states, do not have the character or the value that have been mentioned by press organs in relation to Central Africa."
There is no law in France against public servants accepting foreign gifts.
The Canard Enchaine had alleged that, in addition to Giscard, his brother Olivier; his first cousins Francois and Jacques; Defense Minister Yvon Bourges; Overseas Cooperation Minister Robert Galley and the Elysee staffer in charge of maintaining France's special relations with African states, Rene Journiaq, also had received diamonds from Bokassa. Diamonds are Central Africa's principal export product.
Giscard's cousins today denied the allegations, calling the report "plain and simple libel" aimed at damaging the president's reputation.
Le Monde's endorsement of the Canard's allegations gives them a weight and respectability that makes them very difficult for Giscard to ignore. Earlier this year, the Carnard publishing a fascimile of Giscard's tax returns, showing that the president plays the stock market. Le Monde hardly mentioned that scoop, and it had almost no political impact.
Former prime minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas was driven out of office in 1972, largely on the basis of a Canard revelation that he had managed his personal finances so as not to pay any income taxes. The arrangement was perfectly legal.
One Gaullist cautioned, "you've got to remember that his is france. It's not like the United States. The Elysee has a good chance of finding a way to slide out of this."
Neverless, the Giscard administration seems to have suffered some lasting damage to its reputation over the president's longstanding close ties with Bokassa, who habitually addressed the French leader as "Dear Cousin."
Under the six-column headline, "A Patrimony Closely Linked to Overseas Companies," Le Monde published a lengthy account of the Giscard family fortune's involvement with Central Africa and the surrounding region starting with the president's father, Edmund, in the 1920s.
There have been a number of published comments contrasting Giscard's tolerant attitude toward Bokassa's propensity to ply European visitors with gifts to president Charles de Gaulie's rigorous refusal to accept anything that might be seen as compromising.
Mrs. de Gaulle is known to have refused angrily an offer of diamonds from Bokassa during a visit he made to France. The Canard Enchaine said today that, in the presence of about 15 persons, Gen. de Gaulle had ordered Bokassa gifts of ivory and ebony taken away to a museum.
The issue first was raised on the eve of Bokassa's overthrow in an article in Le Monde by the French ambassador to Bangui from 1969 to 1971. Ambassador Albert de Schonen ended a long account of the brutality and arbitrary character of Bokassa's rule by recalling that "official personalities" habitually left Bangui "with a few gold nuggets and some diamonds presented by Bokassa."
The elephant-hunt trophies Giscard brought home from his safaris as a guest of Bokassa appeared in a different light after it came out last week that the emperor apparently had a tidy personal income derived from the slaughter of 30,000 of his country's 40,000 elephants for their ivory tusks.