Judges rebel against Chirac's choice for top court jobs

With a comprehensive reform of the French judicial system in preparation, senior magistrates yesterday approved the replacement of almost half the country's 35 appeal court judges, including a new chairman for the Paris appeal court.

The meeting of the magistrates' council, which was chaired by Jacques Chirac, was the President's second attempt in a month to obtain an agreement on the appeal court appointments. Three weeks ago the magistrates - unusually - refused to endorse the government's nominee for Paris and accused Mr Chirac of reneging on election promises to end political interference in the judiciary.

The nominee in question was Alexandre Benmakhlouf, the head of the Justice Minister Jacques Toubon's private office.

There was a widely held view that Mr Benmakhlouf's close connections to those in power - he was adviser to Mr Chirac when he was prime minister between 1986 and 1988 and when he was mayor of Paris - called into question his neutrality. It was also argued he had only six years' courtroom experience.

Mr Chirac and the government decided not to risk open conflict with the magistrates and the appointment was put on hold. In the meantime the government conducted a small reshuffle of Paris judicial posts that are - unlike the chairmanships of the appeal courts - in their gift, and made Mr Benmakhlouf the procurator-general of Paris.

While Mr Benmakhlouf's new job may not have been what he wanted, or what Mr Chirac and Mr Toubon wanted him to have, it did not silence criticism. For the procurator-general is responsible for deciding whether criminal investigations are pursued, which judge conducts them and whether the case comes to court.

Moreover, the original objections derived not only from Mr Benmakhlouf's politics, but from the timing of his promotion, just as several corruption inquiries seem to be converging at the Paris town hall. It was the Paris town hall where Mr Chirac held sway before becoming president, where his close ally, Jean Tiberi, succeeded him as mayor, where the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe had been treasurer - and where Mr Benmakhlouf spent three years as adviser.

Over the past year, Paris rate-payers have been transfixed by a scandals half-revealed in the press, but which the Justice Minister rejected as not warranting investigation. Almost the first was the revelation that Mr Juppe, while Paris city treasurer, had accommodated most of his adult family in elite, cut-price housing owned by the city. Close behind came similar revelations about Mr Tiberi.

The Tiberi scandal sprang back to life when a former deputy head of the housing department, himself under investigation for corruption, accused Mr Tiberi of having his son's city flat refurbished at vast expense to the ratepayers and said Mrs Tiberi had supervised the work.

Details included descriptions of a vast roof terrace, marble flooring and paint colours which were changed several times at Mrs Tiberi's insistence. Mr Tiberi denied everything.

But in the course of that investigation, passed four weeks ago to another investigating judge and soon dropped, a search was conducted of the Tiberis' private Paris flat. The search aroused controversy because local police refused to accompany the investigating judge on the orders of their senior officer. It turned up an invoice for the sum of 200,000 (pounds 25,000) francs to Mme Tiberi for work she had done for the neighbouring region of Essonne.

It then emerged the mayor of Essonne was a family friend and that the payment was for a 36-page report on developing Essonne's relations with franco- phone countries. It was so banal that Mrs Tiberi became the laughing stock of Paris.

Mrs Tiberi's payment and the refusal of the police to assist the search are now the subject of new inquiries. For many Paris rate-payers, weary of city scandals that run into the sand, Mr Benmakhlouf's appointment will be the test of Mr Chirac's pledge to take justice out of the politicians' hands.

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