Sun, Nov 07, 1999 - Page 1 News List

Minister nixes Taiwan visit


French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot has cancelled a visit to Taiwan citing "diary commitments," the ministry said yesterday, denying any link with French cabinet scandals which may involve weapons sales to Taiwan.

Gayssot had been due to arrive this evening to lobby for the sale of a high-speed rail system from the European consortium named Eurotrain.

A report Friday said Gayssot had been scheduled to meet President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Feng-cheng (林豐正) and Nita Ing (殷琪), chairman of the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp which won the NT$440 billion contract for Taiwan's first high-speed rail project.

The paper said the trip was canceled shortly after a French-Taiwanese association was cited in a corruption probe that has embarrassed France's ruling Socialists and caused the resignation of finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

"We've been informed Thursday morning that the minister is not coming," said an official based in Taiwan. "But we were not given the reason," he said on condition of anonymity.

Apparently trying to avoid the sensitive issue, Taiwan's foreign ministry spokesman Henry Chen said: "I didn't even know he had planned to come."

Eurotrain, formed by France's Alstom Group and Germany's Siemens Group, is battling the Shinkansen group of Japan for a NT$80 billion contract to supply train carriages and locomotives for Taiwan's high-speed rail system.

According to French news reports, magistrates investigating a scandal-ridden student health-care fund, the MNEF, are trying to determine whether there is a link between it and an association called France-Taiwan, which may have served as a cover to help push for deals involving weapons sales to Taiwan.

Strauss-Kahn stepped down Tuesday over allegations he was paid 603,000 francs in 1997 for legal work he never performed for the MNEF, and that as minister he may have known of forged documents drawn up to hide the transaction.

In 1991, when the association was created, the French oil giant Elf-Aquitaine was pushing for the sale of French frigates to Taiwan in the face of strong opposition from China.

That affair led to a corruption probe against former Socialist foreign minister Roland Dumas and his ex-mistress Christine Deviers-Joncour, who were allegedly involved in the 1991 sale of six frigates.

The probe forced Dumas to step down last March from his post as head of France's Constitutional Council, where he was the fifth-ranking official in the state hierarchy.

The daily Liberation said several people who served as intermediaries to help push for the frigate and Mirage sales were involved with the MNEF.

In 1992, Paris struck a US$3.8 billion deal with Taipei to sell it 60 Mirage 2000-5 jets again following determined opposition from Beijing.

The Mach 2.2-capable Mirage was especially sought by Taiwan because of its superior performance and armament when compared with the Russian Su-27 jets with which China started rearming its poorly equipped air force earlier this decade.

Taiwan took delivery of the last batch of the Mirage fighters in October last year.

The arms sale caused a serious rift between Paris and Beijing, and China ordered the closure of the French consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou. The consulate was officially reopened in 1997.

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