France faces a crisis of justice

Alain Juppe is trying to halt a major scandal,
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The Independent Online
Paris - When, as yesterday, a staunchly pro-government newspaper devotes the whole of its opinion page to a defence of some fine interpretations of French law, and when the prime minister, as he did the previous evening, devotes part of a rare television interview to a defence of his country's judicial practice, something is afoot.

That something is an emergency attempt by the government to avert a full- blown crisis of public confidence in French justice, in particular in its capacity to judge those in power.

The problem is not new in France, where political and judicial power are linked by much more than any "old-boy" network and where the prime function of judges has been to uphold "Republican law".

Over the past week, how-ever, the perpetually rumbling criticism of the influence of political figures on the judiciary has grown into an outcry.

The immediate cause was the decision by a Paris judge to drop a case involving accusations of misuse of public funds and nepotism against the Mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi.

The public fury that greeted that decision was matched by more considered anger and shouts of "political interference" from many lawyers after Parisian police refused to assist a judge's authorised search of Mr Tiberi's apartment.

The justice ministry denied interference. In France, though, a request does not need to be overt: everyone knows well how to anticipate the requirements of political power, on which their jobs could depend.

Mr Tiberi was deputy mayor for 12 of the 18 years that the present head of state, Jacques Chirac, was mayor. The Justice Minister, Jacques Toubon, who appoints both judges and state prosecutors and is in charge of the police force, is concurrently a city councillor and mayor of one of the capital's 20 districts. The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, is a former deputy mayor and treasurer of Paris.

A poll commissioned by the Parisien newspaper and published yesterday showed the extent of public distrust of politicians and justice in Paris.

Some 56 per cent of those asked expressed "little or no confidence" in Mr Tiberi; 68 per cent thought council housing was allocated "according to political or personal considerations", and 64 per cent thought the judge was wrong to have dropped the Tiberi case.

Loik Floch-Prigent, the head of the national railway company, SNCF, was yesterday called in for questioning by an investigating judge in connection with allegations of corruption at Elf-Bidermann, the company where he was director before moving to SNCF.

If Mr Floch-Prigent is placed under formal investigation, Mr Juppe was asked, would he be expected to resign?

"Everyone," replied Mr Juppe, "is innocent until proved guilty." In other words, no.

"Good justice must be equal for everyone and it must be dispassionate," said the Prime Minister on Wednesday night. He said it several times over.

That is all very well, responded an editorial in yesterday's Le Monde, but why is it that judges have to be reminded of these principles so often?

Part of the answer was on the screen for all to see.

The Prime Minister, being interviewed, narrowly avoided prosecution last winter for allocating select council flats to himself and his family while city treasurer.

The chief interviewer, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, is appealing against his conviction for receiving favours - expensive suits and holidays - from an adviser to the former mayor of Lyons.

In such circumstances, French voters could, perhaps, be applauded for still being shocked enough to protest.