Commentary: Why France's Hands May Never Scrub Clean

Judges can pick off members of the elite, but can they win the war?

Glance at the headlines in France these days, and it looks as if panic is about to grip the heart of the French elite. You'd almost think the tumbrels were about to roll again toward the guillotines. On May 30, Roland Dumas, former Foreign Minister and once head of France's Constitutional Court, was sentenced to 30 months in jail for his role in a massive corruption scandal centering on the old Elf Aquitaine energy group. Tough-talking former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua--a kind of Gallic J. Edgar Hoover--is under judicial investigation on charges of bribery and arms dealing. European Affairs Minister Pierre Moscovici, once the treasurer of France's ruling Socialist Party, is being investigated in connection to kickbacks on public-school construction. And French parliamentarians recently put together a motion to start impeachment proceedings against President Jacques Chirac on charges of corruption.

Not surprisingly, many wonder whether France is finally being struck by a homegrown version of Mani Pulite, the Clean Hands corruption investigations which swept Italy during the 1990s. That national psychodrama changed Italian politics and broke the insidious backroom dealings between business and politicians. True, Italy may have just elected a multibillionaire Premier who once benefited from those links with politicians. But for the first time, Italy has an effective two-party system--thanks, in large part, to the work of Mani Pulite.

Unfortunately, don't expect an Italian-style catharsis in France. The missing ingredient: an outraged citizenry. Despite evidence of official dishonesty that would make even a Sicilian blush, there has been none of the outcry that exploded in Italy, where Roman crowds pelted former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi with coins and yelled, "Thief, thief." Most French are proud of their state and the gilded elite who command it.

Moreover, despite a few examples of high civil servants ratting on each other, this is a group that sticks together. "There is a law of silence that is the heritage of France's absolute monarchy, and the idea that, as representatives of the state, the elite is above the law," says Sophie Coignard, an investigative journalist who co-authored a book on French corruption, L'Omerta Française.

Against that kind of caste solidarity, France's zealous investigative judges can score spectacular individual victories, but they cannot win the war. In Italy, magistrates organized themselves into pools with direct authority over police. In France, judges often work alone, have little access to funds, and enjoy no special relationship with either gendarmes of the Defense Ministry or the National Police, which depend on the Interior Ministry. Judge Eric Halphen, for example, was unable to serve a search warrant on then Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi and his wife when political higher-ups at the Interior Ministry forbade the police to act.

GOLDEN SILENCE. The conspiracy of silence goes to the top ranks of government and business. Loïk Le Floch-Prigent, former CEO of then state-owned Elf, has described how the company maintained an elaborate system of illegal slush funds for years without anyone spilling the beans. "A large number of people inside the government knew the amounts involved," says Le Floch-Prigent, who was sentenced to jail along with Dumas.

France, as Italy did in the '90s, badly needs to open the books about how it is run. Paris is still in many ways the political heart of Europe, and as such must set an example of transparency and good governance. Until it does, skepticism about the European Union will continue to run high in places like Britain and Sweden and could even spread to the core of Europe. "I'm just waiting for the moment when our neighbors call us to account for what we do," says Coignard. With the debate growing louder and louder about the future political contours of Europe, that day of reckoning may not be too far off.

By John Rossant

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