Chirac judge resigns, claiming 'mafia-like' corruption in France

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The Independent Online

A judge who investigated alleged wrongdoing by President Jacques Chirac for seven fruitless years resigned in disgust, blaming a "mafia-like" system of political corruption in France.

Judge Eric Halphen said he had been harassed and "impeded" at every stage. He had been bugged, followed and filmed, even on holiday. At one stage, he had feared for his life and those of his children. A sting operation by a member of President Chirac's party had ended his marriage. After the decision last year by France's highest legal authorities that the President was beyond the law, Mr Halphen, 42, said there was no point in continuing as an investigating magistrate.

He added: "In the United States, [President Richard] Nixon resigned for a thousand times less" than the kind of evidence that exists of illegal fund-raising by President Chirac when he was Mayor of Paris from 1977 till 1995. "Here we have a President who is suspected of having enriched his party with the taxpayers' money for years and we are told we cannot investigate him. In that case, how can we continue to investigate all the others?"

Mr Halphen was holding his first press interview, with the newspaper Le Parisien. He said he was a victim of a system of political corruption that went far beyond President Chirac and the centre right. "Political investigations are just like mafia investigations. No one speaks ... People who embezzle huge sums escape all judgement or, if they are convicted, they get away with trivial punishments. But the man who steals a handbag on the Metro is not so lucky. He gets six months."

Three months before President Chirac stands for re-election, Mr Halphen's words – and decision to quit the judiciary – caused shock-waves in the French political and media establishments. What effect they will have on the electors is unclear. Despite repeated allegations of corruption in the past seven years, President Chirac remains popular with the French electorate, comfortably outdistancing his likely chief rival, the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, in all recent opinion polls except one. Political analysts say the small print of the polls is less encouraging for Mr Chirac. His score on questions of honesty and trustworthiness has collapsed in the past year.

Members of Mr Chirac's neo-Gaullist party, the RPR, dismissed Judge Halphen's resignation as a pre-electoral stunt and an admission of his "failure" as a magistrate. They have long accused Mr Halphen of being politically motivated, which he categorically denied yesterday.

The judge infuriated President Chirac last year by sending him a standard witness subpoena form, describing him as "Chirac, Jacques" and his "last-known address" as the Élysée Palace. Mr Chirac refused to meet the judge, and the highest French appeal court agreed a President was above the reach of the law.

Judge Halphen had been removed from his seven-year investigation into the rigging of building and renovation contracts for council flats in Paris after assembling considerable evidence of systematic kickbacks to Mr Chirac's RPR – and all other mainstream parties of right and left in Paris – in the Eighties and early Nineties.

In 1994, while Mr Chirac was still Mayor, an RPR politician paid a large sum to the judge's father-in-law, then announced it was a bribe solicited by Mr Halphen. The judge said this broke up his marriage.