The other suspects in the case allegedly received illegal payments for the shipments of weaponry to Angola, including tanks, Kalashnikov rifles and land mines.

'Angolagate'

The Angola arms scandal dates back to the Angolan civil war in the 1990s.

Dozens of European businessmen are facing charges over the trafficking of $790m in arms to Angola between 1993 and 1998 during the civil war, which left 500,000 people dead.

Eduardo Dos Santos, Angola's president, is alleged to have requested the arms the French state refused supplies due to a UN arms embargo.

Charles Pasqua, a one-time French interior minister, allegedly went to Luanda, the Angolan capital, to sign an agreement with Dos Santos in Novemeber 1994.

When Pasqua endorsed Edouard Balladur, a rival to Jacques Chirac in the French presidential election, Chirac’s supporters revealed information concerning the alleged shipments of weapons.

Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of Francois Mitterrand, a former French president is among those accused of accepting undeclared money or gifts from a company run by Falcone in exchange for political or commercial favours.

Lawyers for Falcone and Gaydamak have said that the case should not be heard in a French court because the weaponry never entered French territory.

But prosecutors have argued that the accused's use of a French bank and French companies in the deals provides enough reason to try them in Paris.

Charles Pasqua, a former interior minister, faces charges of "passive arms trafficking" and "receiving misused funds".

In an interview with Europe-1, a French radio station, he denied involvement in the case and said the allegations were an attempt to derail his attempt to contest France’s 2002 presidential elections.

Pasqua, Gaydamak, Falcone and Mitterrand face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines if they are convicted.

Angola's 1979-2002 civil war pitted the Soviet-backed army of dos Santos against the US-backed Unita forces, led by Jonas Savimbi.

The trial is expected to last until March.