The family feud involving Europe’s richest woman and an unexpected French political scandal her case triggered could save a centuries-old independent investigator role from being axed by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Lawyers, judges and the public have questioned prosecutor Philippe Courroye’s decision to open several preliminary inquiries after hearing secret recordings of L’Oreal SA heiress Liliane Bettencourt talking to advisers and friends, rather than naming what is known as an investigating judge to handle it. The move may indicate political pressure to stall the resulting probes into alleged tax evasion and campaign-finance violations.
“The prosecutor is not independent because he gets his orders from the Justice Minister, and his career is in the minister’s hands,” said Matthieu Bonduelle, secretary general of the Paris-based Magistrates’ Union. “Everything leads to the view that the government wants to control this affair. If not, we would have an investigating judge.”
What began as a dispute between Bettencourt and her only child, has spawned Courroye’s inquiries into tax evasion, invasion of privacy and possible campaign-finance law breaches tied to Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. Because of the complexities, critics say the case is one that needs an investigating judge. Sarkozy wants to abolish that independent investigator position in a broad overhaul of the justice system.
Only an investigating judge would have the authority and independence necessary to deal with such a complex web of claims about foreign bank accounts, political influence and ownership of one of the Seychelles islands, said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Paris’s Institute of Political Studies.
If one isn’t named, which may limit the scope of the Bettencourt probes, it could make it harder for the President to cut the long-standing post. Police plan to question Sarkozy’s Labor Minister Eric Woerth this week as part of the investigation, according to a spokeswoman for Courroye.
Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie “calls for calm” regarding the handling of the Bettencourt investigations, Guillaume Didier, a spokesman for the Justice Ministry, said in a telephone interview yesterday. Critics should “let justice do its work,” he said.
“The Bettencourt affair is unfolding as if the investigating judge was already eliminated,” said Alain Mikowski, a Paris defense lawyer not involved in the case. Courroye “can do absolutely anything he wants, no one knows what is going on. Everything you read in the papers is leaked, all that is illegal. It’s a secret process, there are no defense rights. It’s scandalous.”
Investigating judges handle only 4 percent to 5 percent of cases, usually involving finance or corruption. Unlike prosecutors, investigating judges have the power to order wiretaps, detentions and international warrants and don’t report to anyone directly.
Prosecutors are bound to the Justice Ministry and have to seek judge’s approvals to order searches or other investigation steps.
“Most judges are shocked by the way in which things have gone,” Bonduelle said. “And I’m not even talking about citizens, who seem to be at the least surprised, but the judges who know how these things work from the inside.”
Bettencourt’s daughter has pursued a private prosecution of Francois-Marie Banier, the photographer who got over 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in gifts from her mother, saying he manipulated the 87-year-old heiress. The secret recordings of Bettencourt’s conversations, made by a former butler, have stalled the trial over her claims.
The home of Bettencourt’s daughter, Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, on the outskirts of Paris, was searched today by police, according to a spokeswoman for Courroye’s office who declined to be identified.
Bettencourt Meyers’s lawyer, Olivier Metzner, said the police didn’t find anything “because there wasn’t anything to find.”
Without an impartial person at the helm, it appears “those in power don’t want to put light on this case,” Dubois said.
Following their summer recess, the French Parliament is expected to take up Sarkozy’s proposed changes to the judicial system, including eliminating investigating judges. Given the heavy legislative calendar and scale of the proposed changes to the legal code and system, the package may not be voted on before the 2012 presidential election, Didier said.
“The Bettencourt affair is not going to change Nicolas Sarkozy’s agenda,” Dubois said, though he may have a more difficult time getting the package passed as judges and political rivals “use the Bettencourt affair to show plainly that French justice is not clear, is not independent.”
Bettencourt lives in a Paris suburb in the Hauts-de-Seine region where Sarkozy began his political career. In the recordings, Bettencourt’s financial adviser Patrice de Maistre is heard assuring her a Sarkozy adviser told him Courroye would close his inquiry into her daughter’s complaint over the gifts without pressing charges. The prosecutor later did just that, and the daughter instead pursued her private prosecution.
Courroye was named public prosecutor in Nanterre by Sarkozy in 2007, against an oversight board’s advice.
“It’s very rare, and puts Mr. Courroye in a difficult position, because now everyone thinks he was named there to render service,” said Bonduelle. “So even if he is very honest, one must note he was named, against the Conseil Superieur de la Magistrature’s advice, to the area that is the President’s fief.”