In Europe Too, Prosecutors Are Bagging Politicians

Unlike in US, probes are popular, reflecting middle-class rejection of cozy elites and insider relationships.

Europeans may find aspects of the Monica Lewinsky saga hard to understand, but their political leaders - many of whom are themselves locked in battle with aggressive prosecutors - can only empathize with President Clinton's position.

Indeed, while Kenneth Starr may yet bring down a president, that power seems almost puny beside the influence of crusading anticorruption magistrates in Italy who brought down the entire political system that had governed since World War II.

Across the Continent, a pattern has emerged. In Italy, the mani pulite (clean hands) campaign has wrought havoc at the highest levels of government. In Belgium, former NATO Secretary -General Willy Claes is currently on trial for corruption. In France, onetime Prime Minister Alain Jupp was charged last month with misuse of public funds. In Spain, the former interior minister, Jose Barrionuevo, was sentenced two weeks ago to 10 years in prison for his role in organizing anti-separatist death squads.

A new generation of European investigating magistrates, asserting their independence from the politicians who once controlled them, is trawling the murky waters of governments' dealings with unprecedented care and catching some very big fish.

"Politicians complain they are victims of a plot against them" by judicial authorities keen to take revenge for years of submission, says Antoine Garapon, a judge who teaches at the Institute for Higher Judicial Studies in Paris. "But it is not the thermometer that makes the temperature go up."

In France, the recent wave of criminal investigations into top political and business figures has been dubbed "the judges' revolution." In the past five years, investigating magistrates have laid charges against 15 Cabinet ministers or former ministers and the heads of some of the country's largest companies.

In a country where graft and corruption had long been quietly tolerated, "it was not easy to make people understand that a politician could be charged like any other citizen, or that a CEO could be put in preventive detention like a chicken thief," says Jean-Pierre Boucher, head of one of the French judges' trade unions.

Behind this newfound boldness, Mr. Garapon sees a tectonic shift in French society. For a long time the old business, government, and civil service elites have enjoyed cozy relationships within a powerful state apparatus that ensured their grip on power. Now they are coming under fire from the middle classes, he believes, and from a more modern breed of businessman keen to make France internationally competitive.

Mr. Boucher shares this view. the economic crisis of the early 1990s and the widespread sense of disgruntlement that it engendered, "meant that ordinary people were less ready to tolerate a privileged caste," he says. "There was a strong wave of opinion from society which wanted a fight against corruption."

"The magistrates have been invested with a power that they did not seek, which derives from deeper social forces," Garapon adds. "Judges are being asked to use criminal law to say in a spectacular way the things ordinary people say among themselves."

Similarly in Italy, the end of the cold war opened up the political system. For 50 years that system's prime goal had been to keep the Communist Party out of government. When the Communist threat receded, "the public began to look at the parties that had ruled them in a much more critical way," says Alexander Stille, a US-based analyst of Italian politics.

And where before Italians had tolerated the web of kickbacks and bribes that everyone knew entangled business and the government "because they preferred a corrupt Christian Democratic Party to the Communist Party," he adds, that attitude quickly changed.

No more 'old ways'

At the same time businessmen, anxious to make Italy a real part of the modern European market, grew tired of the old ways. Where once the priority was to have a friend in government, now it was more important to make the country's enterprises more competitive, and bribes were a drain.

"Suddenly businessmen turned against the parties they had been in cahoots with, and were lining up to help the magistrates investigate corruption," says Mr. Stille.

In Belgium, a century-old informal arrangement whereby governments appointed judges but then left them alone to do their jobs has broken down in recent years, according to Luc Huyse, who teaches at the Law School at the Catholic University of Leuven.

With politicians trying to influence judges' rulings and magistrates effectively making law by their judgments in areas where parliament had failed to legislate, such as abortion, "a border war has broken out," says Professor Huyse.

One of the battlefields in that war is the Augusta case, in which several prominent politicians - including Mr. Claes, who was once Belgium's defense minister - are currently on trial for taking bribes from the Italian helicopter manufacturer Augusta and the French airplane maker Dassault.

In Spain, too, political weakness has helped the judges in their task. The fact that the Socialist Party lost power in 1993 made it easier to investigate the shadowy "Anti-Terrorist Liberation Group" (GAL) that killed at least 27 people in a "dirty war" against Basque separatists, says Jose Luis Galan, a lawyer involved in the Barrionuevo case.

"Everyone makes firewood from a fallen tree," he adds, quoting a Spanish proverb.

In marked contrast to Kenneth Starr, investigating magistrates across Europe have also drawn strength from popular support. At the height of his investigations into Italian corruption, Milan magistrate Antonio Di Pietro was the most popular man in Italy. In France, says Eric de Montgolfier, a prominent judge, "if public opinion had continued to tolerate corruption, we would not have been able to fight it."

A poll published last week in Le Point magazine found that 60 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of French judges.

Likewise in Belgium, argues Huyse, "the judges have been forced to do what they are doing in political scandals by the public. The citizenry wants to punish the political class."

In many cases, investigators have used the press to generate or feed that support, much as Mr. Starr is alleged to have tried to do. Often the magistrates have clearly broken the law themselves by leaking findings that should have been kept secret.

The Milan magistrates running the mani pulite campaign had "a real alliance with the press," says Stanton Burnett, author of a recent book about the scandals, "The Italian Guillotine." "That was necessary for magistrates to fend off the pressures that would have been too great otherwise," he says.

And while Mr. Boucher, the French magistrates' union leader, acknowledges that it is "not proper" for judges to leak secret information to reporters, he says that it is only "the new sort of links that have developed between magistrates and journalists that have stopped some scandals being buried."

In Spain, it was the anti-Socialist newspaper El Mundo that led the pack in investigating the GAL, and on reporting on judicial investigations.

Claims of 'conspiracy'

This led to charges from Spanish Socialist leaders that the investigation was politically motivated. As in Washington, where Hillary Rodham Clinton has accused Mr. Starr of being part of a conservative conspiracy, this is an claim widely echoed in similar situations in other countries, especially since magistrates in many European nations are often politically aligned.

"These were politicized magistrates - one political force toppled another," argues Mr. Burnett of the Milan judges. Their left-wing views, he believes, led them to prosecute the establishment political parties but to ignore possible misdeeds by the Communists and their transformed successor group, the Democratic Socialist Party, which is now the largest party in the Italian parliament.

Not all analysts share that view, however. And in Spain, says Mr. Galan, Socialist claims of political motivation in the Barrionuevo case "are absolutely false. I believe this sentencing is a very big step forward in the democratization of Spanish institutions."

Other observers elsewhere, however, wonder about the strains on the political fabric that result from running battles between judges and politicians.

"The big loser" in the turf battle between the judiciary and the political class in Belgium "is democracy," worries Huyse. With ugly allegations flying around, "such a war between traditional powers in society is very destructive ... a democracy cannot remain untouched if such a border conflict drags on," he says.

Whether it is democracy or only a traditional style of government that is endangered by the judges' drive, one thing is sure, says Galan. "As far as corruption goes, the lid that covered European governments for so long seems to have been lifted slowly. European democracies are starting to take government corruption seriously."

* Emma Daly in Madrid contributed to this report.

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