French judges target the politically powerful
A key figure in a high-profile corruption case was arrested over the weekend.
A spate of corruption investigations and trials is bringing a new concept to the French public: the crusading prosecutor.Skip to next paragraph
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The French judicial system and the mainstream press were not noted for pursuing the politically powerful in the past. At least, that's the popular perception. In contrast, the French media today are following the current scandals with uncommon vigor. Some critics even accuse judges of aggressively targeting well-known people to win themselves celebrity status.
Increasingly, French judges (who are actually similar to American prosecutors) are showing they are not afraid to order searches of the homes and offices of the powerful. Those currently targeted in separate cases include Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi, former Socialist Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, son of the late President Francois Mitterrand.
The younger Mitterrand is accused of using personal contacts to sell $500 million in weapons to Angola. Known as "Monsieur Papa m'a dit" ("Mr. Daddy told me") for his penchant for family name-dropping, Mr. Mitterrand ran France's Africa policy during his father's tenure. He spent the Christmas holidays in a Paris jail, winning release only after his mother posted $720,000 bail.
In another case, the former president of the Constitutional Council - the equivalent of the US Supreme Court - is on trial in a labyrinthine scandal involving a French oil company, his former mistress, the sale of frigates to Taiwan, and a pair of $1,700 handmade shoes.
A leading member of the Socialist Party and former Finance Minister is accused of falsifying documents to hide kickbacks.
And, in what some observers believe may explode into the biggest scandal of all, President Jacques Chirac recently went on TV to claim ignorance of the way his Rally for the Republic Party was financed while he was party president from 1976 to 1995.
Although he cannot be indicted or called to testify while in office, there is a growing belief that Mr. Chirac will be indicted in the financing scandal should he lose the next election in 2002.
A byproduct of reform
"There have always been scandals in France," says Rene Raffin, a journalist with the newspaper Le Progres in the city of Lyon, who has long covered corruption and the courts. "But today, the judicial power has shaken itself loose from political control. In the last 20 years France has become a modern democracy."
Most French politicians tend to graduate from the same prestigious schools and spend a lifetime in public service frequently holding several posts simultaneously.
And before reforms began 20 years ago, this elite traditionally operated by its own rules, blurring the line between legitimate expenditures for public duties and private amusement or personal advancement.
Until recently, nonexistent but lucrative jobs for friends and allies were commonplace. Political parties were illegally funded through commissions and kickbacks paid by those vying for lucrative state contracts.
The modernization of France's political life began with the election of President Francois Mitterrand in May 1981, when the Socialists took the reigns of power for the first time in 23 years.