December 19, 2003

French Corruption

There's a terrific article on the French culture of corruption in the January issue of Britain's Prospect Magazine . It drew me in because my own perception has been that for all we read about the monumental investigations going on in France, the massive findings of wrongdoing, and huge amounts of money going into all the wrong pockets, nothing much seems to come from all that ado. This piece goes a long way toward explaining why that is.

Writer Tim King tells at first of a systemic flaw that gives politicians too much control over the prosecutorial machinery:

The French magistrate is a legally trained "detective" with enormous power. He or she can summon anyone in the land, except the president, and keep a suspect in prison for months without trial. (It was revelations about the state of the French prisons experienced by members of the elite awaiting trial in the late 1990s that helped to tip public opinion against the magistrates.) The constitution demands that the examining magistrate be independent. But the person who gives the magistrate his cases, the prosecutor, is not independent. His career depends on maintaining a good relationship with his superiors in the ministry of justice. If he gets the feeling that the ministry would prefer a particular case not to come to court, he can split it into two or more components, allocating each to a separate magistrate, possibly in different parts of the country.

Then King details how Mitterand set up a public works program that had graft for the ruling political party and the local politicians built right in:

In 1971, when François Mitterrand created the Socialist party, there were no laws controlling the way political parties raised funds. His party was committed to modernising and rebuilding France - hospitals, police stations, town halls, schools. Each local authority would need expert help, so the party set up a building consultancy, Urba, to advise on the site, propose the architect and vet all tenders. For this service, Urba took around 3 per cent of the total cost. The money thus raised was split: 40 per cent for Urba's running costs, 30 per cent for the Socialist party and 30 per cent for the elected representative who had procured the contract.

Urba was conceived as a way of siphoning public money into party coffers and private pockets. The system worked well, and grew rapidly as the demands of the party increased and elected representatives became greedier. Sixteen regional offices were set up, plus various lesser companies and fronts to conceal their activities from the taxman and the police.

Ten years later, François Mitterrand was elected president, the left had a majority in parliament and thousands of town halls had Socialist mayors. Urba flourished. If Mitterrand is remembered for his grandiose building projects, they weren't merely for the greater glory of France. Although Urba was discreet, its illegal practices were suspected by some. A couple of investigations were started, only to be blocked by the ministry of justice before much could be revealed.

On the question of whether or not corruption has "distinctive roots" in France, King finds the French to be different from British and other Western societies in two respects:

The first is the attitude to money. The British have a fairly clear view (which has been called Protestant) that money is a tool. There is nothing wrong with it in itself, but there is good money, earned by hard work, and bad money gained through greed or dishonesty. At the root of the French attitude is the Catholic view that money is tainted by sin. Yet money is necessary and since corruption is only an abuse of something already sinful, it doesn't matter too much...

The second basic difference concerns the French attitude towards politicians. In France, politics is about strength and l'art de paraître. The French don't condemn their leaders' immoral actions if they are for the common good. At one of his trials former minister Bernard Tapie admitted he had committed perjury. "But I lied in good faith," he added. "Better the dishonest minister than the stupid one," says barrister Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi, who is defending François Mitterrand's son in an arms trafficking case. The French do not share the notion that a politician should, personally, set a good example.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Incidentally, speaking of things French, what got me surfing around at Prospect was an Arts & Letters Daily link to this profile of Albert Camus, which is also very good.

Posted by dan at December 19, 2003 12:21 AM