It is a story worthy of a novel - except readers may find the tale of politics, business, a huge arms deal with Taiwan, lobbying of Beijing, a foreign minister and his dashing woman friend - and a HK$13,000 pair of Italian shoes - a little far-fetched. The former foreign minister, Roland Dumas, is now his country's most senior judge and the fifth highest-ranking person in the state. Despite his standing, he was visited this week by two judges who put him under formal investigation for alleged embezzlement and complicity in misappropriation of funds. For her part, his stylish, dark-haired woman friend, usually pictured wearing sunglasses, has spent five months under questioning in jail. The story also involves two mysterious Asian fixers, a major oil company and a big arms firm. Naturally, large sums of money are involved. Nobody knows quite how much, but the talk ranges from HK$80 million to HK$3.87 billion. The main plot involves selling arms to Taiwan and avoiding irritating Beijing too much. But there are many byways in this tale, many involving the court of a now-dead president whose rule ended in a swamp of scandal. And where did all this murky business take place? In a corrupt third world nation, perhaps? No, the scene is the country with the world's fourth largest economy, which sits as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and which prides itself on being the home of liberty, fraternity and equality: France. The scandal surrounding Mr Dumas, the Elf oil company and the sale of six frigates to Taiwan in 1991 will not upstage the World Cup, but it vividly reflects the malaise in a country where the relationship between politicians and the law has often been murky. Mr Dumas has been a fixture of French political life for decades. A resistance fighter against the Nazis, he became a close associate of the late president, Francois Mitterrand, while establishing himself as a top Paris lawyer, specialising in working for famous painters and sculptors. Mr Dumas, who was most recently foreign minister from 1988 to 1993, was named president of France's top legal body, the Constitutional Court, just before the end of Mitterrand's presidency in 1995. Silver-haired and urbane, Mr Dumas is also known for his women friends. One association, with the daughter of the then Syrian defence minister, Nahed Ojjeh, caused national outrage. His friendship with the dark-haired woman in sunglasses, Christine Deviers-Joncourt, was less well-known - until last autumn when she was hauled in for questioning. The trail that led two determined women investigating judges to Deviers-Joncourt, 51, and Mr Dumas, 75, has its roots in what the French press described as the arms deal of the century - the US$2.7 billion (HK$20.87 billion) sale of six French-built frigates to Taiwan. It was a juicy contract for the builder of the warships, the Thomson group, but there was a snag. When France established diplomatic relations with Beijing, it agreed not to sell arms to Taipei. So Thomson faced a problem. But a senior executive at Elf had a suggestion: Elf had a couple of useful go-betweens in its dealings with Beijing, and he thought they might be of service to Thomson, in return for a commission. One of these go-betweens was a Hong Kong-American while the other came from Taiwan. According to the Elf executive, Thomson agreed to make use of their services, and to pay well. Thomson denied this, but earlier this year a contract was found in a safe deposit box in a suburban Paris bank, and the arms firm was ordered to pay a commission. The Elf executive who set up the deal had, by then, disappeared - he is variously reported to be in Indonesia or in Switzerland. Elf's help to Thomson did not end there. Working on another front, the oil firm, Elf, hired Deviers-Joncourt. Her job was to use her influence with the foreign minister. One assignment was to try to get him to lift the embargo on arms sales to Taiwan. Some witnesses said it was actually Mr Dumas who arranged for Elf to take her on in the first place. Be that as it may, Deviers-Joncourt said she made no headway on getting Mr Dumas to change his mind on Taiwan. However, the French Government did suddenly change its mind and approved the contract in 1991. That might have remained if an examining magistrate called Eva Joly had not begun to probe allegations of corruption at Elf three years ago. In the end, the trail led her to the Taiwan deal, and, more precisely, to allegations about commissions paid when the French veto was lifted. Despite Deviers-Joncourt's insistence that she could not get Mr Dumas to change his mind, a sum of about US$11 million was said to have been paid to her by Elf in Switzerland. Some of that money was then alleged to have passed through Mr Dumas' bank account in Paris. Other payments were paid into the account in big bundles of cash - Mr Dumas said the money came from the sale of art works. Deviers-Joncourt was also said to have set up bank accounts in various tax havens. One thing is certain: she enjoyed a lavish expense account, including the company credit card with which she bought Mr Dumas his expensive Italian shoes: he said they were needed for an orthopaedic complaint. All this was enough to send Ms Joly and a fellow judge to the former minister's home in southwest France where he is recuperating from a hip operation. As well as putting him formally under investigation on Wednesday, they ordered the man who decides France's constitutional issues to post bail equivalent to HK$6.5 million. He was also banned from travelling to Switzerland or Luxembourg, or to the tax havens of Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra and Antigua. While calls mounted for his resignation from the constitutional council, Mr Dumas insisted on his innocence and his right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. As for the buyer of the frigates, Taiwan has suspended making payments pending completion of the investigation in France. The Dumas affair is the the latest in a string of scandals to shake France in recent years, involving politicians and businessmen. Several one-time cabinet ministers have received jail sentences - one for fixing a football match. The head of the parliamentary finance commission had to step down after being convicted of political funding offences. Prominent businessmen have been condemned for paying bribes and using company funds for their own purposes. The enigmatic figure of president Mitterrand, who left office in 1995 and died the following year, looms large over all this. A so-called Socialist who liked to give lectures about the evils of money, Mitterrand presided for 14 years over a regime in which favourites came and went at his whim, and where his closest aides seemed to feel they were above the law. On one occasion, Mitterrand's oldest friend picked up some useful information from a presidential official about a takeover being launched by a state-owned company in the United States. He bought shares accordingly to make a large profit, and was only unmasked in an investigation by the American stock market regulator. He died of heart trouble before standing trial for insider dealing. A former prime minister shot himself by a canal, and another long-time associate blew his brains out in the presidential palace. Over the years, this man had told a journalist of a string of scandals, but would only allude to one which he said reached right up to the president, and could shake the whole country. Now, in a recent newspaper interview, Mr Dumas revealed that it had been Mitterrand, himself, who lifted the embargo on arms sales to Taiwan. The commission involved was not the small matter of US$11 million mentioned in connection with Deviers-Joncourt, Mr Dumas added, but a payment of no less than US$500 million paid to unnamed persons. Somewhere, there is said to be a secret file documenting everything. This dossier may never see the light of day, but plenty of fresh revelations can be expected to be leaked about the Dumas investigation in the coming months. While this will make tantalising reading, it may have deeper implications, further undermining the already low reputation of French politicians. The Socialists who have formed the government since their victory in legislative elections last summer could be hurt by fresh evidence of the corruption of the Mitterrand period. And the growing disillusionment with the establishment will provide fresh fodder for the extremist National Front party which loves to denounce corruption in high places and has emerged as the power broker of French politics. A couple of years ago, a leading French politician warned the tide of scandal and the deteriorating atmosphere of public life risked producing a 'pre-fascist' environment in the country. The speaker was Roland Dumas. It would be ironic if this pillar of the French establishment came to be remembered as a participant in a major blow to the good name of the republic.