Ask Wolfgang Schäuble about German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and the former chairman of the opposition Christian Democrats sounds like his old fighting self. "Sure, the government's economic policy is cleverly presented, but the reality is looking worse and worse," says Schäuble in his customary growl. "The emperor's not wearing any clothes."
Standard political rhetoric--except that it's coming from a man once given up as a scandal-tainted has-been. But on Nov. 1, Berlin prosecutors announced they couldn't prove accusations that Schäuble lied to a parliamentary committee investigating campaign financing irregularities. Now party insiders are feeding speculation that a rehabilitated Schäuble could even lead Germany's center-right as its Chancellor candidate in elections next fall. Amid a blast of press coverage, polls already show Schäuble beating party Chairman Angela Merkel, once the front-runner. Schäuble dodges questions about whether he would want to run for Chancellor but studiously avoids ruling out the option.
Schäuble is not the only probe target poised to make a miracle comeback. In France, former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a likely contender for Prime Minister after being cleared of accusations that his private law practice collected fees from a student insurance fund without doing any work. Polls show the centrist Strauss-Kahn nearly even with front-runner Martine Aubry, a left-leaning former Labor Minister. Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist, could become Prime Minister even if his party loses the presidency. If the Socialists are able to maintain their parliamentary majority, it's widely thought they will look for a new face as Prime Minister to replace Lionel Jospin.
The turn of events changes the political equation in Europe's two biggest countries. More important, the derailed probes raise questions about the Continent's anticorruption drive. In the wake of French and Italian anticorruption investigations a decade ago, emboldened prosecutors across Europe filed hundreds of corruption cases against prominent politicians and businesspeople. Some probes were successful. In Germany, investigators earlier this year forced former Chancellor Helmut Kohl to pay a $140,000 fine and admit he accepted illegal campaign donations for the Christian Democratic Union. French judges even sent a former Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas, to jail earlier this year after he was convicted of illegally accepting lavish gifts, via his mistress, from the then state-owned Elf.
TUNED OUT. But the failure of the high-profile Strauss-Kahn and Schäuble cases threatens the credibility of the crusade against corruption. Both investigations were probably ill-advised in the first place. In acquitting Strauss-Kahn, the judge criticized what he said was sloppy investigative work. The accusation against Schäuble, that his testimony conflicted with that of a former party treasurer, was probably impossible to resolve because of differing accounts by other witnesses. Schäuble feels himself unfairly handled. "If you're prominent, that makes you a special target for investigations," he gripes.
The inconclusive results don't exactly bolster public confidence. Even before the Schäuble and Strauss-Kahn decisions, some corruption fighters seemed to be losing steam. Despite years of investigation, prosecutors were unable to confirm allegations of alleged bribery in the sale of the Leuna oil refinery in East Germany to France's Elf. Meanwhile, magistrates haven't come up with any specific charges against Bank of France Governor Jean-Claude Trichet, after placing him under investigation in April, 2000, in connection with his former job as a government regulator of the fraud-tarnished bank Credit Lyonnais.
Indeed, most French voters seem to be tuning out corruption. President Jacques Chirac is running ahead in the polls for reelection next year, despite being involved in at least four investigations of alleged misconduct, including recent disclosures that he used more than $300,000 in cash from undisclosed sources to pay for lavish private trips abroad. "People say: `We know it's like this, but it doesn't bother us that much,"' says Gilles Corman, a political analyst with the Sofres polling organization. Chirac remains legally immune to prosecution as long as he's President.
There is some good news: A decade ago, many prosecutors feared for their careers if they pursued cases against political figures as powerful as Strauss-Kahn, Schäuble, or Chirac. And less-publicized probes continue to go after corruption at all levels of government. A court in Versailles is expected to rule soon on a criminal case against 72 former local officials and business people who allegedly conspired to rig contract awards on public-works projects. "Those who say there has been no improvement are wrong. More has become visible," says Sophie Coignard, a French journalist who wrote a 1999 best-seller about high-level corruption in France. But, Coignard adds, "Fundamentally, the system remains the same."
Prosecutors say they aren't deterred by setbacks or political pressure. If the evidence is there, "we would naturally pursue charges," says Raimund Weyand, a prosecutor in Saarbrücken who was involved in investigating corruption in the Leuna refinery sale. Even a failed investigation sends a powerful message to the political elite. Fairly or not, Schäuble was driven from the Christian Democrats' top post and lived under a cloud for a year and a half. That's a warning to politicians that they must avoid even the appearance of misconduct. And it remains to be seen whether Schäuble can really make a comeback. "Even if Schäuble himself didn't do anything bad, as one of the party leaders he has to take responsibility," says Wulf Weiler, a 33-year-old Düsseldorf resident.
With or without Schäuble, the company finance scandal continues to weigh on Germany's Christian Democrats. "There was a massive loss of trust," says Oliver Krieg, chief of political and economic research at polling firm Emnid. A recent Emnid poll for Focus magazine shows Schröder beating all the potential opponents on the right, including Schäuble. For career politicians, fear of poll numbers may provide the best reason of all to hew to the straight and narrow.
By Jack Ewing in Frankfurt and Carol Matlack in Paris, with Andrea Zammert in Frankfurt and Christina White in Paris