The Sleaze Factor: French politicians are snared by 'les affaires': All the established parties are tainted in some way, writes Julian Nundy in Paris

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The Independent Online
During Pierre Beregovoy's 11 months as France's Prime Minister, one of his most famous speeches was about fighting corruption. On 1 May 1993, six weeks after leaving office, the lifelong Socialist shot himself with a bodyguard's gun. Friends suggested that it was the pain of coming under suspicion himself that had pushed him to the brink.

Francois Mitterrand blamed 'dogs' in the media for Beregovoy's despair.

Francois Leotard, the Defence Minister in the new conservative government, spoke of 'elegant Fascism'. Beregovoy, he said, was 'the first victim of a new culture'.

Such comments reflected a view that politicians were the victims of witch hunts and that the magistrates investigating corruption cases, known in France as les affaires, were going too far. A year and a half later, the French media are crammed more than ever with news of corruption charges across the political spectrum.

Gerard Longuet, the conservative Industry Minister, was forced to resign this month because he was under investigation for personal fraud and illicit party funding. Alain Carignon, the Gaullist communication minister until he resigned in July, was put in custody to stop him influencing witnesses after he was charged with 'passive corruption'.

Mr Carignon's case follows a typical pattern. As mayor of Grenoble, he is suspected of taking favours, such as a large rent-free flat in Paris and election campaign funds in return for public works contracts, particularly linked to the privatisation of Grenoble's water services.

Other cases involve contributions to political party coffers or donations in kind, such as rent-free offices in return for municipal contracts. Some include personal perks. The businessmen involved also end up in trouble - about 100 French chief executives at present face charges.

'If a building firm gets a municipal contract, then you may find that the local mayor gets some work done on his house by the same firm,' said a fiscal lawyer.

'If there is no proper bill and it transpires that the mayor made the work a condition for the contract, he can be accused of 'active corruption'. If he took it as a gift afterwards, the charge would be 'passive corruption'.'

Nobody pretends that such practices are not new. Optimists claim that they are coming to light because a newly independent judiciary is suddenly able to uncover them. The first recorded political corruption scandal of this type goes back to 1847 when Jean- Baptiste Teste, the public works minister, was jailed for taking a bribe in return for a mining concession.

For Pierre Mehaignerie, the centrist Justice Minister, it is simply that the judiciary is now free of control. 'If we are now seeing a lot of affaires,' Mr Mehaignerie said this week, 'it is because cases are no longer being covered up.'

Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, noted that most of the scandals dated back to the late 1980s before new legislation on party funding and hoped they would die down once this wave was over. It was in Marseilles in 1989 that police uncovered a 'false bills' scandal in which a building company overcharged on public works contracts and sent the surplus to politicians' campaign headquarters. In Le Mans in 1990, Thierry Jean- Pierre, a magistrate, concluded that the Urba company used the same methods to feed Socialist Party coffers.

Mr Jean-Pierre, now an MEP in the same conservative group as Sir James Goldsmith, the Anglo-French financier, so annoyed the Socialist government that he was removed from his post and his cases were given to Renaud Van Ruymbeke in Rennes. Mr Van Ruymbeke proved equally uncompromising. Last week he and another magistrate were put under police guard after receiving death threats.

The magistrates' method of keeping their investigations alive - and ensuring their independence - is controversial, to say the least. Almost invariably, their findings are leaked to the press and published before formal charges are laid.

It was Mr Jean-Pierre who uncovered the interest-free loan that Mr Beregovoy had accepted from Roger-Patrice Pelat to buy a flat. Although there was nothing illegal in taking a loan, Mr Pelat, a friend of Mr Mitterrand, was named in an insider trading case after his death in 1989.

A leaked report by Mr Jean- Pierre last December described Mr Mitterrand's own financial links to Mr Pelat. It said Mr Mitterrand's son, Gilbert, received consulting fees from him after Mr Mitterrand's first election in 1981. An executive at one of Mr Pelat's companies described the work for the fees as 'fictitious'.

Mr Jean-Pierre is reluctant to classify French political corruption as endemic but he fears it could become so. He said corruption in France and Italy were different because 'mafias, even if they have some activity in France, are not implanted. France does not have to worry about public security problems'.

He added, however: 'France is on the road to Italianisation and the next two years will be decisive.' France needed 'the necessary tools against corruption so that judges can get down to work'. At the moment, they were powerless against 'big financial crime, be it corruption or money-laundering'.

Despite an array of charges, very few cases have yet to come to court. The first big trial will be in Lyons in January when Michel Noir, the city's independent conservative mayor and a one-time presidential hopeful, faces a judge with Pierre Botton, his son-in-law, and Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, France's best-known television newsreader, on a string of fraud charges.

All the established political parties are tainted in some way by les affaires. Politicians on the hustings in last year's parliamentary campaign often said this was brought home to them when voters told them outright that they were tous pourris, 'all rotten'.

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