French mayors in revolt

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NERY'S TOWN hall is a concrete box so small that it might be mistaken for a public toilet. All business is conducted at one long table, overlooked by mementoes of a brief heroic battle fought here to check the German advance on Paris on 1 September 1914.

The mayor, Claude Picart, 51, is a boyish, friendly, wind-tanned farmer who grows vegetables for the Paris market 40 miles to the south. He spends two hours a day on his mayoral duties, for which he receives pounds 80 a week (out of which he must pay all his municipal phone bills and travel expenses). "I was elected mayor because, well, I suppose because it was my turn and people trusted me," he said. "Everyone here knows that I'm an honest man."

Just before Christmas, Mr Picart was arrested and taken to police cells in Creil, 15 miles to the north-west. He was ordered to hand over his shoelaces, tie, spectacles and wedding ring. He spent a night in jail and two days being interrogated by four detectives. His crime? Mr Picart has not been charged with any crime, but he has been mis en examen - placed under formal investigation - for "infringing the code on public contracts".

So have 17 other mayors from nearby villages and small towns. The investigating magistrate running the case, Judge Laurence Pernollet, an energetic and striking woman in her early 40s, is said to be preparing similar action against up to 100 mayors in this departement, the Oise, in southern Picardy.

Nor is that all. A 64-year-old woman of previously unimpeachable character, in charge of historical restorations for the local council, was detained for questioning by the judge for 17 days, then banned indefinitely from entering the departement - her lifelong home. She was not allowed to return to spend Christmas with her family, even though she remains innocent (in theory) in the eyes of French law. The most that has been proved against anyone so far is failure to respect the copious small print of the public procurement code.

Last month 800 elected officials - 200 mayors and 600 others - marched through the streets of Beauvais, the principal town, to protest against what they allege is a form of judicial terrorism. Family and friends of the 64-year-old woman at the centre of the case, Pierrette Bonnet-Laborderie, intend to protest about her treatment to the European Court of Human Rights.

France once seemed to be a country in which politicians and bureaucrats, at all levels, were unaccountable and immune from prosecution. All that has changed in the past 10 years. According to one estimate, 10,000 public officials have been mis en examen for one alleged misdemeanour or another. Many of the investigations have proved justified, uncovering kickbacks on public contracts, either for private gain or to fund political parties. There is growing concern, however, that a younger generation of examining magistrates - a corps of investigators with substantial independent powers - has become obsessed with political graft. In pursuit of their investigations, it is alleged, they have become as unaccountable and immune from public scrutiny as the politicians once were.

A much delayed reform of the judicial system seeks to curb the magistrates' powers - especially their use of detention - and to try to rescue the presumption of innocence from the loaded and poisonous phrase mis en examen. The "affaire des maires d'Oise" may become an important test case.

If you take the Eurostar, or motorway, to Paris, Oise is the last piece of rural France before you reach the city's suburbs: a doleful country of vast sugar-beet fields, small woods and church towers. The church towers are where the story begins.

Three years ago the council of the departement created a pounds 3.5m fund to restore and repair village and town churches, especially the locally celebrated "35 clochers de l'Automne", the 13th-16th-century church towers of the valley of the river Automne, east of Senlis, including two in the commune of Nery. Ms Bonnet-Laborderie was placed in charge of advising the mayors on how to claim the grants and let the contracts.

All, apparently, went well until an architect recommended by the Office of Historic Monuments in Paris was fired from the programme after quarrelling with Ms Bonnet-Laborderie. He went to the police to point out that three- quarters of the contracts had been let to one building firm from Amiens, 60 miles to the north. Despite her 17 days of grilling, no proof was uncovered that Ms Bonnet-Laborderie had co-ordinated a corrupt campaign to favour the company. In all cases where a tender system was necessary, the company had made the lowest bid. Its work on the churches (now halted) was irreproachable.

None of the mayors placed "under investigation" has been shown to have conspired with the company or taken a penny for themselves. At most, the police and the magistrate have uncovered a few administrative errors.

Mr Picart said: "Some of my colleagues in other villages have been physically ill since they were arrested. I've been lucky. Of the 750 people in this commune, not one has reproached me for anything."

And what of the crumbling church towers of the Oise? Some are restored (rather beautifully); some are half-restored; and some are still crumbling.