The sexy judge, the bent cops and the beach bomb

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A GALLIC John Grisham could not have invented a more pleasing character for a politico-legal thriller - the plucky, stand-in judge, caught up in great affairs of state.

Patrice Camberou, 31, even has the movie-star looks for the part. He is a snappy dresser, in the brash style of a French quiz-show host, with a Presleyesque quiff and a shy smile. His usual job is to investigate delinquent fathers and dysfunctional families. Abruptly, this weekend, he finds himself with the fate of a popular French government in his hands. He is leading an explosive (literally) investigation into delinquent - and pyromanic - senior gendarmes and the dysfunctional French administration of Corsica.

The reason he has the job - in which he has performed superbly so far - is that he is standing in for a more senior examining magistrate who is on maternity leave. Her name is Danielle Salducci-Camberou: she is his wife.

In the next couple of days, Mr Camberou is expected to fly to Paris to interview senior members of the private office of the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. If he uncovers any evidence that they were connected with the bizarre events on the island in the last three weeks, Mr Jospin's government could fall.

Everywhere you look in this odd tale - a story of state terrorism and illegal beach restaurants - there are intriguing, airport-novelish details of this kind. Bernard Bonnet, the Prefect of Corsica, the most senior French official on the island, was arrested by Judge Camberou last week, on suspicion of ordering five senior gendarmes to fire-bomb a shack-restaurant on a remote beach at dead of night.

Prefect Bonnet, presently residing in the Sante jail in Paris, is a great lover of William Shakespeare. During his 15 months reign as the de facto governor of Corsica, the Prefect would quote, and often misquote, chunks of Shakespeare to bemused Corsicans. His favourite play is The Tempest: the story of Prospero, a self-regarding man marooned on an island, who acquires, and abuses, great powers.

Mr Bonnet, an old-school French career bureaucrat, was sent to clean up Corsica after his predecessor, Claude Erignac, was assassinated in February last year. He reported directly to the Prime Minister's office in Paris and was given substantial new powers and authority to re-impose l'Etat de Droit - the rule of the legal state.

It appears that Mr Bonnet had become obsessed with illegally-built beach restaurants (there are over 500 in an island with 250,000 people). The Prefect saw them as a symbol of the casual lawlessness of the islanders and as meeting places for the byzantine island networks of politicians, criminals, militant separatists and police. The assumption is that he, or an elite gendarmerie unit with his connivance, decided to destroy a few of them illegally to teach their owners - and the Corsicans generally - a lesson.

As Prospero's daughter, Miranda, says in the last act of The Tempest: "Oh, brave new world, that has such people in't!"

Were the Corsican experts in Mr Jospin's office aware of the Prefect's and/or the gendarmes' plans? It seems unlikely, but Judge Camberou is determined to find out. If he finds a smoking gun - even a used safety match would do - the Prime Minister may have to go.

Much of the significance of this baffling story - baffling even to Corsicans - resides in the characters and roles of these two men: the autocratic Prefect and the inexperienced, but honest and energetic, investigating judge. Ten, or even five years ago, such illegal activities carried out by senior servants of the French state would have been covered up and never brought to light. There was an assumption - still apparently held by Mr Bonnet - that the interests of the state overrode everything, even the state's own laws. Remember the Rainbow Warrior.

There has been a revolution in French attitudes in recent years, brought about partly by investigating judges like Mr Camberou, who have dismantled the networks of corruption and illegal financing in French political parties and state-owned corporations. Investigating judges have always, theoretically, been independent but, in the past, even the recent past, they also tended to bow to the power and superior morality of the interets d'etat.

In this affair, Mr Camberou and the Corsica public prosecutor's office have shown a commendable zeal to get at the truth. But he would not have succeeded - certainly not so quickly - if the Jospin government had intervened to block, or side-track, the inquiry. Mr Jospin's refusal to do so proves that he is, as he claims to be, a different kind of French politician.

Paradoxically, however, this is precisely why this absurd-seeming affair is so wounding for him. It tars him, by association, with the kind of dirty tricks and underhand activity which he professes to detest.