Scrubbing French Politics

Cleaning up the culture of corruption in French politics is like trying to sweep the streets of Paris. It's a big job, and fortunately for the citizens of France, their judiciary is not put off by it.

The latest case to be cleared away by prosecutors is that of former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, convicted last week in the "fictitious" hiring of seven employees at Paris City Hall when he was the city's treasurer. The employees actually went to work for the political party of Jacques Chirac, France's president, who at that time, was the mayor of Paris. Until now, Mr. Juppé has been considered the likely successor to Chirac, his mentor.

Juppé's supporters say his suspended 18-month prison sentence, which also bars him from voting for five years and from holding elective office for 10 years, is too harsh. The country "needs" him, they argue, as if the involvement of the nation's political elite in illegal backroom deals is of no consequence.

The judiciary disagrees, and in handing down the maximum sentence, has maintained its independence and watchdog role.

France's large public sector and its casual attitude toward conflict of interest create ideal conditions for political corruption. But slowly, the climate is changing. More privatization means less money easily available to the politicians who oversee public services, and the holding of multiple elected offices is no longer favored.

In recent years, judges have cracked down on corruption. In 2001, for instance, former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was found guilty of accepting illegal gifts from Elf, the formerly state-owned oil company. His conviction, however, was overturned on appeal last year.

Juppé also plans to appeal, which freezes his sentence. At the same time, President Chirac, who was Juppé's boss at the time of the crime, is immune from prosecution while he's still in office. We hope neither France's prosecutors nor its judges will allow any skirting of the law.

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