Au pair who became crusading judge is named as European of the Year

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The Independent Online

How does "a little girl from the mountains of Norway" – Eva Joly's description of herself – end up being named European of the Year?

It is a remarkable story, but then Ms Joly, 58, is a remarkable woman. Having arrived in France as an au pair, she went on to become one of the country's most feared magistrates.

Her latest accolade, voted for by readers of the European editions of Reader's Digest, has been given for her work investigating corruption among some of the most rich and powerful people in France. It is a task she began eight years ago, aged 50.

She helped to bring down Bernard Tapie (a corrupt businessman turned corrupt politician and football boss) and Roland Dumas (a former socialist foreign minister, convicted of taking bribes from France's largest company).

Her award is well timed. Eric Halphen, a magistrate who spent seven years investigating President Jacques Chirac's party, resigned in frustration last week – suggesting the tide is now against the 562 investigating magistrates, or juges d'instruction, who lead all but the most straightforward criminal investigations in France. There are even suggestions from right-wing politicians and some senior members of the judiciary that it is time to abolish them.

In an interview with The Independent – the only interview that she agreed to give in connection with her award – Ms Joly would not comment on Mr Halphen's resignation directly, but said: "What we are seeing now is a change in the wind: a concerted attempt, by some politicians, by some in the press, by some in the judiciary, to try to persuade the people of France that their country is threatened, not by corrupt politicians or businessmen, but by the judges investigating corruption.

"It is important to resist that campaign. Corruption is a threat to the values of democracy and freedom and equality, and especially equality before the law."

Ms Joly has said that an "ocean of corruption" existed in France until the early 1990s. But she believes that "the few convictions that have been achieved have had an important, symbolic effect". "The complete sense of impunity that existed 10 years ago has gone," she said. "Younger generations of politicians think twice now before becoming involved in corruption."

Ms Joly said 95 per cent of corrupt practices in France have not been brought to court. "But we should not just talk of France," she said. "Look at Argentina, where billions of dollars have left the country illegally. Look at Italy, where the Prime Minister is trying to remove a judge who is investigating him. Look at the Enron affair.

"Corruption, like everything else, is a question of supply and demand. The demand ... remains immense. The supply remains immense. And the ease with which money can move across borders undetected makes it easier than ever to get away with it."

Ms Joly said the amountlaundered in the world each year for political corruption, terrorism, drugs, tax evasion and embezzlement is estimated at $1,000bn (£696bn), the equivalent of all the cash in circulation in the US.

Gro Eva Forseth was 20 when she arrived in Paris to study French and work as an au pair in 1964. She married the eldest son of the family in which she worked. He studied to become a doctor; she worked as a secretary and studied law in the evenings. In 1993, after her two children had grown up, she became a member of a team of examining magistrates in Paris. Her husband died last year.

Ms Joly believes her Norwegian origins have helped. She is not part of, or easily browbeaten by, France's self- perpetuating élites. "When you are a little girl from the mountains of Norway, you are not easily impressed by all the glories of Spain," she said.

As corruption becomes increasingly international, she said, so must the policing of corruption, starting with a pan- European fraud squad within the European Union. "I hope I am a precedent for the Europe of tomorrow when there will be French policemen investigating in Germany and Belgian judges working in Spain," she said.