Commentary: A "Clean Hands" Campaign For France?

Back in February, 1992, when an Italian Socialist Party bureaucrat was busted for taking a $3,600 bribe, no one suspected that within two years an entire generation of Italian politicians would be swept away in the turmoil of the Clean Hands anticorruption investigations. As it turned out, what began in Italy was an opening salvo in a much broader move to clean up government in post-cold war Europe. In 1996, Felipe Gonzalez and the Spanish Socialists were washed away in a torrent of sleaze. By 1999, Germany's Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union would be hobbled by revelations of illegal financing practices.

Now it's France's turn. That's why the Feb. 7 extradition of Alfred Sirven, the central figure in the country's biggest political corruption scandal in decades, is so important. True, there has been a kind of slow-drip quality to anticorruption a la francaise. Magistrates in Paris have been hard at work uncovering high-level misdeeds since at least the mid-1990s, and the list of former government ministers, mayors, and parliamentary deputies placed under judicial investigation has grown long.

A NATION GRIPPED. But the pace is clearly quickening. Nothing has quite caught the French imagination like the trial that opened on Jan. 22 of figures linked to massive slush funds once run by Elf Aquitaine, an oil company then owned by the state. The Elf scandals have already felled no less a figure than Roland Dumas, the former Foreign Minister. Dumas was forced to resign as head of France's Constitutional Court one year ago after he was charged with accepting pricey gifts from his mistress, an Elf employee who allegedly got her job through his influence. Sirven could throw light on everything from a murky arms deal with Taiwan in the early 1990s to cash allegedly funneled to Kohl. Elf's alleged bribemaster for most of the 1990s, Sirven once boasted he could "bring down the [French] republic 20 times" with what he knew.

That is surely an exaggeration. But today's utter discrediting of many of the country's leading politicians, including President Jacques Chirac, symbolizes an epochal shift already well under way in French attitudes. The state had always enjoyed an unparalleled supremacy in French life, from generous welfare schemes and universal health care to the way nationalized companies like Elf and banks like Credit Lyonnais grabbed new markets. French students longed to join the state's elite corps, like the vaunted Inspection Generale des Finances, where jobs and prestige would be assured. Now, polls are showing that young French no longer regard working for the state as a prime goal in life. A majority want to get jobs in private businesses or start their own companies. "This is a profound transformation," says Maurice Levy, CEO of Paris advertising giant Publicis Groupe.

The implications are profound, too, and not only for France. The tradition of the centralized state is deeper in France than anywhere else in Europe. That's one reason its leaders have been holding up recent German-led plans to streamline the European Union and set it up on a more federal basis. And that's why France has been lagging behind Germany, Spain, and other European countries in pushing through serious pension and fiscal reforms, as well as in opening up key sectors of the economy to increased competition. Government spending still accounts for 53% of French gross domestic product, even though large swaths of banking and industry have been privatized in recent years.

But French leaders largely act as if citizens' perceptions of the state have not changed much since the days of Charles de Gaulle, if not Napoleon. The reality is that the French are probably more willing than at any time in history to accept a much faster reduction in the role of the state--and more willing than many political leaders give them credit for.

So far, though, France's leaders are playing a potentially dangerous game of brushing off corruption charges. Increasingly fed up French voters are likely to start the cleanup process for them as soon as municipal elections on March 11. French Gaullists will almost surely lose control of the scandal-ridden Paris City Hall they have controlled for decades. The cleanup needs to go further. The scandals relentlessly playing out on the front pages of French newspapers have produced a deep cynicism about politicians and politics. It there aren't signs of real change, they could also produce anger.

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