A spate of corruption investigations and trials is bringing a new concept to the French public: the crusading prosecutor.
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.
Mr. Mitterrand began the process of decentralizing the French state, transferring certain powers and substantial moneys to regional and local governments - which also increased opportunities for under-the-table deals.
With growing money and power, corruption exploded at the local level. But at the same time, the Socialists began to give judges more independence to carry out sensitive investigations.
"The left freed the judicial process, and they also became its first victims," Mr. Raffin said. "The politicians did not understand that the system no longer worked like it used to, and failed to draw the lessons of the possible consequences."
Over the past 10 years, the National Assembly has approved three laws on campaign contributions and political party financing, removing the often-used excuse among politicians that they had to resort to under-the-table financing because there were no provisions for public funding.
Although Mitterrand has acknowledged receiving a $1.8 million commission, he claims the money was legitimate payment for assisting the Angolan government in obtaining bank loans.
While in jail, Mitterrand told the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur that the judge, Philippe Courroye, "had displayed an unyielding hostility, with a real look of hate" during interrogations.
"If I had not been called Mitterrand, I would not have received this treatment," he said
Critics say French judges frequently use their powers to put famous people in preventive detention even though they lack convincing evidence.
In December, Michel Roussin, President Chirac's former chief of staff at the Paris City Hall, was jailed after refusing to answer a judge's questions.
"The growing role of judges in French society is a positive development," the center-left newspaper Le Monde editorialized recently in a reference to the Mitterrand and Roussin cases. "But the increasing legalization of public life should have as a corollary or counterpart the strict respect of everyone's rights, beginning with those of the defense."
For the moment, it is the trial of former foreign minister and former president of the Constitutional Council, Roland Dumas, that is grabbing the headlines.
Over the weekend, Alfred Sirven, the key figure in a case involving the alleged misuse of money from a state-owned oil company, Elf Aquitane, was arrested near Manila by Philippine police.
Sirven was put on a flight to Frankfurt after missing the Air France plane to Paris, and French authorities were hoping he would be extradited to France today.
Mr. Dumas, his former mistress Christine Deviers-Joncourt, Mr. Sirven, and four others are currently on trial in the highly complicated case.
Elf is now part of the giant firm TotalFinaElf.
Ms. Deviers-Joncourt allegedly was paid $9 million to lobby Dumas for the sale of the frigates to Taiwan, and bought him the $1,700 pair of shoes.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society