A 1991 sale of warships to Taiwan has given rise to one of France's biggest kickback scandals ever, leaving a top official fighting allegations that he and a close female friend took millions of dollars to help close the deal.

The widening scandal - with its hints of political conspiracy and an extramarital affair mixed with big money, expensive gifts and a swanky Left Bank apartment - has captivated the French media and disgusted much of the public."It horrifies me," nurse Elisabeth Liebert said as she sipped coffee in a Parisian cafe. "They shouldn't get away with it."

Fanning the furor has been what one newspaper editor calls the "TV series aspect."

"There's the love affair, the Swiss bank account, the cash stashed in a bank," said Jacques Esperandieu, deputy editor of the popular Le Parisien daily.

The key player in the scandal is former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, a Socialist politician who was a close associate of the late President Francois Mitterrand. As head of the Constitutional Council, Dumas is France's fifth-highest official.

At issue is a $10 million payment made through a Swiss bank account to Dumas' friend, Christine Devier-Joncour, after the warship sale went through.

Prosecutors allege that Devier-Joncour got the money as a lobbying commission from Elf-Aquitaine, the French oil giant pushing the warships' sale on behalf of the smaller state company that built them, Thomson.

Dumas had originally opposed the $2.5 billion sale of six frigates to Taiwan, fearing it would harm ties with China. He eventually dropped his resistance to the deal - after, Devier-Joncour claims, heavy lobbying by her.

She and Dumas have made no secret of their friendship, although they have not publicly said whether their relationship went any farther than that.