PARIS - Bernard Laporte, a towering figure in French rugby, goes on trial on Wednesday on charges of corruption and influence peddling in a high-profile case making big waves only a year before France hosts the Rugby World Cup.
The 58-year-old former France coach is accused of favouritism in awarding a shirt sponsor contract for the national side to a close friend, Mohed Altrad, the billionaire owner of Top 14 champions Montpellier.
The five officials in the dock also include Claude Atcher, who was recently suspended as managing director of the 2023 World Cup organisation, and French Rugby Federation (FFR) vice-president Serge Simon.
The trial will run till Sept 22.
"The accusations against Bernard Laporte are completely trumped up, notably because everything he did was in the best interest of the federation," his lawyer, Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi, told AFP.
But France's financial crimes unit PNF disagrees. Its investigation into the dealings of Laporte, who was minister for sports in former president Nicolas Sarkozy's government from 2007 to 2009, concluded that he was guilty of illegal influence peddling and passive corruption, mostly for the benefit of Altrad.
The two men's friendship and business links are at the heart of the case, which goes back to February 2017 when they signed a deal under which Laporte, then head of the FFR, agreed to appear in Altrad group conferences, and sold his image reproduction rights, in return for €180,000 (S$250,000).
But while that sum was indeed paid to Laporte, prosecutors claim that he never actually provided the services he signed up for.
He did, however, make several public statements backing Altrad and, in March 2017, signed a €1.8 million deal with the businessman making his eponymous firm the first-ever sponsor to appear on the French national team's jerseys.
Even now, Altrad's logo features on team's shirts thanks to a follow-up deal negotiated by Laporte in 2018 and which prosecutors say bears all the hallmarks of corruption.
Laporte is further accused of intervening with French rugby's federal disciplinary commission which reduced a fine against an Altrad company to €20,000 after a call from Laporte, from an original €70,000.
While prosecutors see this and several more incidents is proof of illicit favouritism, Laporte himself claimed that there was no "cause-effect relationship", and said he himself cancelled the contract in the summer of 2017 when press reports began to question the nature of the relationship between the two men.
The trial will also examine the links between Claude Atcher and the FFR from 2017 to 2018 when Atcher's company, Sport SV, won contracts for four missions, mostly linked to the French bid for the 2023 World Cup.
Prosecutors say one of those missions, worth €21,000, was never carried out, but Laporte still signed off on a bonus payment to Sport XV of €30,000.
Prosecutors say the deals swindled the FFR out of an estimated total of €80,000.
Five years of investigation have shaken the French rugby world, and hurt Laporte's reputation, but he still got himself re-elected as FFR boss at the end of 2020.
"He is confident," his lawyer Versini-Campinchi said. "His mindset is that of a fighter."
Simon, one of his oldest friends, concurred, noting that overcoming the odds is Laporte's forte.
"He thrives on adversity. He builds his personality round that," said Simon.
Laporte has had a varied and colourful career which has covered all angles from sports to business to politics and now sees him in a role at the heart of preparations for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
On the rugby front, he has been a title-winning scrum-half as well as a successful coach both with the national team - achieving Six Nations Grand Slams in 2002 and 2004 - and at club level.
A figure whose prominence transcends rugby, he has featured in advertising campaigns from ham to dog food.
In politics, he put up posters for Socialist Francois Mitterrand during one of his presidential campaigns and then served as a minister in the right-wing government under former prime minister Francois Fillon, who was later convicted in a fake job scandal.
He was not a political natural and he lashed out at some of his former colleagues once he had been relieved of his duties in 2009.
"They did not consider me part of their world," he told Paris Match in 2009. "I lacked the polish and the networks, I simply did not exist." That seemed a strange admission from a man of whom an English observer remarked: "Apart from (Cardinal) Richelieu no one else in France has shown more political sense."
The hard lessons learnt from his two years as a minister paid off, for he has worked the corridors of power more effectively in the world he understands, rugby.
Laporte, who is also a vice-chairman of global governing body World Rugby, was named by highly regarded magazine Rugby World the most influential personality in the sport.
His brusque, straight-talking manner - sometimes delivered with colourful language - in his strong south-west France accent can rub people up the wrong way.
However, his devil-may-care and take-no-prisoners attitude to life may be down to when he had a brush with death.
He was in a coma for a week as a result of injuries he suffered in a car crash in 1985.
"It is the most important moment in my life," he said.
Ignoring the doctor who told him he would never play rugby again, he showed his bull-headed determination in doing so and six years later as captain, lifted the French league crown with Bordeaux-Begles.
Laporte drives people as hard as he drives himself - though as a club coach, he did benefit from two wealthy owners.
However, he would point to results as he guided Stade Francais from the third tier to being crowned French champions in 1998 and Toulon to three successive European Cup triumphs as well as the 2014 national title.
"Bernard will never let things go and will always say what he thinks and without sugar coating it either," said former Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.
"He is not someone one can buy off or coax over to one's side.
"He is not a bird one can shut in its cage."
This plain speaking allied to a ruthless streak has also produced results as federation president.
He notably masterminded a shock victory for France in winning the right to host the 2023 World Cup, when South Africa were regarded as overwhelming favourites. AFP