Soccer stars’ trial begins in Paris

SCANDAL::Defendants Bayern Munich midfielder Franck Ribery and Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema are facing charges of having solicited a prostitute aged under 18

The Guardian, PARIS

Wed, Jun 19, 2013 - Page 18

It is the story of the grimy underbelly of a late-night club near Paris’ Champs Elysees, two soccer stars accused of paying an underage teenager for sex and a girl from a poor suburb who first made headlines as a child sex-worker, then found fame as a luxury underwear designer and protege of the fashion world — which hailed her creations as “courtesan chic.”

A court case that began in Paris’ criminal court yesterday is tackling one of the biggest scandals to hit French sport, as it promises to reveal the excesses of the Paris party scene, where young women were seen as available for hire through the right contacts, gravitating around the edges of the French reality TV scene.

Known as the Zahia case, it threatens to reveal a culture of pimping in the French capital just as the Socialist government has expressed its aim to abolish prostitution.

The saga began in 2009, when Paris police started investigating alleged pimping of women at the Zaman Cafe, a bar close to the Champs Elysees. While interviewing women suspected of being selected for clients, police realized one witness was underage at the time of some of the alleged encounters.

The witness, Zahia Dehar, told investigators she had had paid-for encounters with two of the biggest French international soccer stars — midfielder Franck Ribery, in 2009, and striker Karim Benzema, in 2008, both when she was under 18.

When the scandal broke, it tarnished the image of French soccer and upset the national team during their fraught 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign in South Africa, but many in the sports world felt no charges would ever come to court against the players.

Dehar told investigators neither player had known her real age because she lied to them about it. Ribery said he had not known she was underage and Benzema denied any encounter took place.

Initially the state prosecutor requested that the case against the players be dropped on the grounds they were not aware Dehar was under 18, but the investigating judge decided that Dehar had looked very young and lying about her age was not enough, ordering the players to face trial. Soliciting a prostitute aged under 18 is a crime liable to three years in prison and a 45,000 euros (US$60,000) fine.

Both players have denied the charges, but the saga has dented the carefully crafted media image of Ribery, one of France’s biggest soccer stars. The Bayern Munich player had a seemingly unflappable image in France as a wholesome family man, who had escaped deprivation on a poor estate on the north coast of France and survived a childhood car crash, whose severe injuries after saw him nicknamed “Scarface.”

He had married his childhood sweetheart, converted to Islam and was seen to symbolize the mixed identities of France, and a father and husband devoted to his wife and children. Soccer fans loved him, he seemed down to earth and principled, but in the investigation and magazine interviews, Dehar said she had been flown to a German hotel by Ribery when she was 17, as his 26th “birthday present” to himself.

Ribery said he did not know at any point that she was underage.

A lawyer for Benzema, who plays for Real Madrid, said he categorically denies the charges against him.

The criminal trial features six other defendants, including a former reality TV contestant, some being prosecuted for “aggravated pimping.” In France, prostitution is legal, but activities around it, including pimping, are not.

The soccer players are not likely to appear in court, nor will Dehar herself. At 21 and now known simply as Zahia, she is famous as a luxury lingerie designer, staging elaborate catwalk shows during Paris fashion week.

Described routinely in French magazines as a bimbo or the “micro-Bardot of the towerblocks,” Dehar, who arrived in France from Algeria as a child after her parents’ messy divorce, has now been taken under the wing of major fashion designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, who said she was fascinating because she was a reminder of France’s 18th-century courtesans, the mistresses of the rich and powerful, who were “a purely French tradition that the whole world admired and copied.”