John Lichfield: A cynical nation and the stench of dirty politics

'The cycling fans' view of doping is the same as my neighbours' opinion of political corruption: they all do it, they always will' do it'
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My next-door neighbours in Normandy asked me the other day to explain the Chirac corruption affair. Was it truly a scandal? Should they take it seriously? I did my best, in a couple of minutes, to deprive Jacques Chirac of two votes in next year's Presidential election (though I suspect my neighbours don't vote).

It was alleged, I said, that President Chirac, when he was mayor of Paris, had been at the centre of a spider's web of corruption, shaking down companies for cash bribes or kickbacks in return for public contracts. It had always been assumed that this money – at least £100m – had been used for the illicit funding of political parties: not just to finance Mr Chirac's RPR (neo-Gaullists) but, through a cosy arrangement between apparent enemies, to bankroll all the mainstream parties of the right and left.

Now, I explained, it had emerged that Mr Chirac may have been diverting some of this cash for his private use. Between 1992 and 1995, just before he became President, he spent at least £230,000 on holidays for himself, his family and friends. He paid for the plane tickets by sending bundles of 500-franc (£50) notes in brown envelopes in the mayoral limousine to his travel agent. He had given various cock-and-bull explanations for where this cash came from, and is using – or, perhaps, abusing – his presidential immunity to refuse to answer the queries of investigating magistrates. This week it was further alledged that he exploited a charity of which he was treasurer to buy a piece of land close to his family chateau.

Hmm, said my neighbours (a retired car-worker and his wife), all of that's quite serious. But, really, haven't politicians always done that kind of thing? Isn't this being dragged up now because of the presidential election next year?

"Do you know what's really scandalous?" asked Michel. "I just heard the other day that the new mayor of Paris is a homosexual. Why did no one tell us about that? That's truly scandalous. That's far more important than politicians stealing a bit of money." (The new, Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, said he was homosexual two years ago. It is true that this fact was hardly mentioned – maybe rightly so – by the French media during the municipal election campaign in the spring.)

One of the great puzzles of the Chirac affair is deciding how damaging it will be for the present President of the Republic, a crafty, and much loved, survivor. Since the latest scandal broke, the opinions polls have careered all over the place. Two surveys have shown Mr Chirac severely damaged; two have shown him untouched and his Socialist Prime Minister, and political foe, Lionel Jospin, tumbling down the ratings.

In any other democratic country the details that have already emerged about Mayor Chirac's activities would have been enough to sink several political careers. Are the French truly as uninterested, or cynical, as they seem about political corruption? Why does a nation that pays so much in tax show such little care for how its public cash is abused? It is true that some of the French have an extraordinary capacity for what psychoanalysts call "denial". This extends beyond the political arena. The great majority of French cycling fans, though not the general public, prefer to ignore the drug-taking that goes on in the Tour de France. The cycling fans' view of doping is the same as my neighbours' opinion of political corruption: they all do it; they have always done it; they always will do it; let's talk about something else.

In May, Bernard Tapie – the disgraced and jailed former politician and entrepreneur – returned as a sporting director of the Olympique Marseilles football club. He had been convicted of bribing rival players to throw an important championship game in 1992. As a result, Olympique Marseilles were stripped of the French and European titles that they won that year.

His return was received by the people of Marseilles as the second coming of the Messiah. Corruption? "They all do it; they have always done it; they will always do it, Bernard was a victim of the Parisian political mafia; let's talk about something else." All of this is disturbing – even incomprehensible – to anyone brought up on Anglo-Saxon, or northern European, attitudes to wrongdoing in public life.

We do have corruption of our own. The Archer, Aitken and Hamilton cases revealed a willingness to "see-no-evil" in the highest levels of British politics. In France, however, there is also apparent tolerance on the part of the general public. Historically, this can be explained, though not completely. "Clientelism has always existed in France. It's part of the way the country had always been run," says the former centre-right Prime Minister, Raymond Barre (who has an unimpeachable reputation for personal honesty).

Until recently, the notion that large companies should bribe political parties for public contracts was seenas almost normal. It was not quite so accepted that politicians should enrich themselves, but it was assumed to be going on. Governments in France, both national and local, operated through – and to preserve – the power of a series of élites.

There has always been a common view, which may yet save Mr Chirac, that all politics is dirty. Better vote for our dirty politicians than theirs. To that extent, France has not been a fully democratic country. Political parties were almost like private companies, created by individual politicians for their own aggrandisement (Mr Chirac's RPR is a perfect example). They appealed to a section of the electorate, but not enough to command the cash needed to fund a modern political campaign. Hence the system of kickbacks on public contracts and its ultimate, anti-democratic Parisian refinement: the systematic divvying-out of the booty between nominally rival mainstream parties.

French media coverage does not sufficiently stress the consequence for real people in the real world. The cash came ultimately from the taxpayer, skimmed from the top of public contracts for council housing and schools. Many schools and public housing estates in the greater Paris area – built in the Chirac area – are falling apart, because 10 per cent of the budget for building and maintaining them was "kicked back" to political parties.

Since the late 1980s, there has been a drive by investigating magistrates to force French politicians to obey the laws they created. (Previously, the state apparatus was, by common consent, above the law.) The former mayors of Grenoble and Lyon have served terms in jail. Hundreds of other senior and minor politicians, officials and businessmen have been convicted or are still under investigation. A half-dozen senior officials in the Paris town hall from the Chirac era – including Alain Juppé, Prime Minister from 1995 to 1977 – have been "mis en examen" or placed under criminal investigation.

Opinion poll findings suggest that even a well-substantiated allegation that the President is a thief bores a part of the French electorate. A part, but not all. There is a generational change going on. Some younger voters, on both the left and the right, would like to see new faces and more accountability.

Next year's presidential election will be about the usual issues. If the economy stumbles badly between now and April, people will, as ever, blame the Prime Minister and President Chirac, the great survivor, will come through unscathedagain. Whether the electorate likes it or not, the election will also be about honesty and democracy and honesty-in-democracy. It would be a pity if France voted for the other side.