French Look at Their Politicians And Wonder if They're Seeing Italy

Demands for government reforms are growing as several ministers and leading businessman are questioned - and some jailed for wrongdoing

ARE the French going through their version of the ``clean hands'' movement that saw the destruction of dozens of political and business careers in Italy and led to the election of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister?

That's a growing question here as several government ministers are suspected of wrongdoing, and a growing number of the country's leading businessmen are questioned - and in some cases jailed - by a new breed of independent judges.

Among the similarities between the two countries are the widespread feeling that politicians are rotten and the inevitable calls for government reform.

``It is urgent, if we want to avoid demagogic, populist, or even extremist adventures, to reform our institutions, to renovate our social contract, to reinvent the Republic,'' says Charles Millon, a leading center-right politician.

While corruption in France is nowhere near Italian proportions, the scandals have further blackened the public's opinion of French politicians. Just 16 months after voters threw out the Socialists largely because of corruption scandals, the conservative government that replaced them appears just as dishonest to many of the French.

For the first time, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur's prospects to be elected president next May appear uncertain. A series of errors on his part have badly tarnished his crafted image of a politician determined to fight corruption no matter where it comes from.

The past several weeks have been rich in political scandal. Three key ministers in Mr. Balladur's government may be forced to resign in the coming weeks. A fourth, Communications Minister Alain Carringnon, left the government last July and was subsequently charged with fraud over illegal financing of his reelection campaign in the city of Grenoble, where he serves as mayor. Another is being investigated for allegedly receiving cash from a medical consulting firm for services never rendered.

Dozens of top French businessmen also have been investigated in the past two years for alleged corruption, often involving illegal contributions to both left and right-wing parties.

Yet, despite the scandals and the public's desire for action, all politicians have done is create a working group to combat corruption and to pledge solemnly that they will not let politics get in the way of the judicial process. ``No one can cite a single case where the functioning of justice has been prevented by my government,'' Balladur claims.

HE Prime Minister is not entirely wrong. Indeed, one of the reasons why so many corruption cases are coming out into the open is that Justice Minister Pierre Mehaignerie has kept his promise to break with tradition and not to interfere with politically sensitive judicial investigations.

This has allowed a new breed of independent judges, exemplified by Renaud Van Ruymbeke, to pursue their investigations involving both the Socialist and conservative parties.

In 1992, Mr. Van Ruymbeke indicted Henri Emmanuelli, the former Treasurer and current Socialist Party Secretary General, on charges of illegal party financing. The indictment followed an unprecedented raid on the party's headquarters in central Paris by police in search of incriminating documents.

The case that presents the biggest danger to Balladur's presidential ambitions is that of Gerard Longuet, the Industry Minister. Van Ruymbeke suspects Mr. Longuet of having paid a bargain price for his villa in the chic French Riviera town of St. Tropez, a charge Longuet adamantly denies. The affair took on a highly political tone at the end of last month when Balladur agreed to a month-long extension of a preliminary investigation into the financing of the home.

The delay meant that Longuet could not be immediately charged and therefore allowed him to remain in the government, at least temporarily. Political analysts and even some members of Parliament accused Balladur of impeding justice in order to protect Longuet, who as president of the conservative Republican Party, has rallied his group behind the prime minister's undeclared presidential campaign.

The Longuet affair, however, is likely to be overshadowed by apparent irregularities in the financing of the Republican Party itself. During the course of his investigation into the financing of Longuet's St. Tropez home, Van Ruymbeke became interested in more than $5.6 million in apparently illegal contributions to the party between 1987 and 1991.

Van Ruymbeke believes Longuet and two other key government ministers and top Republican Party officials were aware of the cash transactions.

They are Enterprise and Economic Development Minister Alain Madelin and Defense Minister Francois Leotard. Their resignation from the government would deal a serious blow to Balladur's presidential ambitions.

At the heart of the corruption issue is the financing of political parties and political campaigns. Some reform-minded French argue that the parties should be financed by transparent foundations. But France has few such institutions, and even fewer capable of producing the money needed for such an enterprise.

A second solution is to have the government, which already subsidizes parties according to their electoral weight, take on the entire financial responsibility for election campaigns.

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