The Cercle Cadet Poker club in Paris’ Rue Cadet was raided by French police on Tuesday morning, following a yearlong investigation into alleged extortion by organized gangs, embezzlement, money-laundering, and criminal conspiracy. Fourteen people were arrested as a result of the investigation, according to French media, including owner Serge Kasparian and a former police chief.
The raids come almost a month to the day that the Aviation Club de France (ACF) was closed down by police, who arrested 11 people including the club’s president, Marcel Francisci. Charges levied at the ACF range from facilitating black market employment to money laundering.
In 2011, three Parisian gambling clubs were closed down permanently as a result of criminal activity: Le Cercle Wagram, Le Cercle Haussman and L’Eldo.
The proprietor of Cercle Wagram, Jean-Angelo Guazzelli, was accused of being a member of the notorious Corsican Mafia outfit Gang de la Brise de Mer (Sea Breeze Gang) and of using the club as a money-laundering operation for the Mob. He received a three-year prison sentence.
The first cercles were established in 1907, in the same year that casinos were prohibited from existing within 62 miles of Paris, and they still operate under a quirky and somewhat ludicrous old law that designates them as “non-profit organizations,” with the stated aim of promoting “social, artistic literary and sporting activities.”
After World War II, the French government granted ownership of the cercles to several groups of Corsicans in return for their services in the French Resistance, and as a result the clubs have long been associated with the Corsican Mafia. In the seventies, they were the subject of bloody feuds between rival gangs. A period of calm followed, but it is believed that the Mafia may have renewed its interests in the clubs because of increased profits garnered from the French poker boom.
The Cercle Cadet itself was once upon a time known as the Concorde Club, a poker club that claimed its raison d’etre was to “promote the French republican ideal.” It was, in fact, a massive money laundering scheme for a Corsican gangster based in Marseilles.
The Concorde was closed down in 2007, only to reopen as the Cercle Cadet. Its new owner, Kasparian, was closely vetted by the French Gaming Association and the Judicial Police before being granted a license, although he now appears to be at the center of the latest investigation.
While there has been no suggestion of Mafia involvement in the Cercle Cadet or ACF, the latter’s owner, Marcel Francisci, comes from a powerful Corsican political family. His uncle and namesake was a gambling magnate and an alleged godfather of the Corsican Mafia, who is accused of playing a major role in the French Connection, the heroin-trafficking operation between Marseilles and New York City. The Francisci family has always strongly denied any link to organized crime.
With the recent spate of closures, and very few currently in operation, there’s speculation that the days of the cercles des jeuxÂ (game circles) may be numbered.