December 24, 2003

French Corruption: Among th...

Prospect. The current issue has two articles that really caught my eye; the one available online is a sobering primer on high-level French corruption:

Corruption is usually a crime of the elite, of those with access to money and power. Since the mid-1980s, France has been intermittently convulsed by scandals which have crept ever higher up the country's social ladder. Those tainted by, if not convicted of, corruption have included Jacques Chirac, Alain Juppé, Roland Dumas and (godfather of them all) François Mitterrand. These are people who are educated in the same schools, and are bound by common values and ideas. They also, according to sociologist Pierre Lascoumes, share a conviction that they are above the law. Those who have actually been sent to prison for corruption (Bernard Tapie, Loïk le Floch-Prigent, Alfred Sirven) may have been government ministers or company directors, but they did not belong to that charmed circle of the French elite.
This section on Mitterand, if true, should revulse any honest Frog:
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.

By 1987, Urba was collecting 123m francs a year. When Mitterrand was re-elected the following year however, there were enough investigators nibbling at the party faithful for him to grant amnesty, as part of his victory celebrations, to all elected representatives (including himself) then being investigated for financial misdemeanours. Magistrates and police officers who had been pursuing a corrupt mayor or MP found years of work wasted.

The law enforcement problem, as explained here in detail, is that investigators have to gain permission for each new expansion of inquiry -- for instance, the legal authority to seize newly discovered damning evidence -- from the Ministry of Justice. Politics, as you might intuit, become involved. Then later, the president can just issue blanket pardons or amnesties, and the corrupt still govern, and/or head-up France's myriad murky conglomerates. Then there's the problem of the press:
One of the key factors in public perception of corruption - for good and bad - has been the press. The French press is in theory freer than the British or American, since it is not bound by sub judice, but in practice it is less free since it owes greater allegiance to elected leaders. The French press receives grants, direct and indirect, from government. Until the mid-1980s there was tacit complicity between journalists and elected politicians - and, at a higher level, between media owners and government. ... [A]s long as they kept a respectful distance from President Mitterrand and his family, particularly his illegitimate one, the young journalists were tolerated. Then shared interests began to bring magistrates and journalists together and their idealism gave the anti-corruption cause its impetus. Tales of corruption sold copy; fame brought the magistrates strength. For a while both sides prospered.

Then [...] individual press titles - Le Figaro, L'Express, TF1, Paris Match - were bought by big industrial groups: Lagardère, Dassault (armaments) and Bouygues (construction). "Businessmen, some of whom had already been fingered for corruption, moved their money into the media, knowing that no editor will publish defamatory material about one of the group's major shareholders," Gaudino told me. Articles began defending the poor victimised businessmen, attacking the unpatriotic magistrates (although some publications did continue digging, despite the change of ownership).

But even at their most powerful, journalists were only printing what the magistrates had told them. Rocking the boat with independent investigations is not part of the salaried journalist's job, and those working freelance lay themselves open to being sued - Denis Robert's recent book Révélation$ about the Luxembourg-based clearing house, Clearstream, has 20 libel cases against it, Gaudino's second book, The Mafia of Business Tribunals, has 43.

Yowza!

I can exclusively confirm that the French media is filled with Open Secrets that every journalist knows but won't publish. For instance, the head of one important publication (I know which one, but I won't tell ... yet!) was involved with a vehicular manslaughter while drunk, but the case was swept under the rug in a deal with a top law enforcement official he knew well. Or here's one I've heard much about -- one of Chirac's mistresses has a senior position at an important news organization, and is known to have made phone calls to journalists at said organization complaining about coverage critical of Chirac.

There is a journalistic culture of both discretion and cowardice, and a lack of true investigatory zeal, and so these corrupt old hacks continue stinking up the halls of government and big business with the worst kind of Elite School old-boy money-laundering, mouthing daily platitudes about liberte, egalite, and all the rest, while the most many reporters will do about it is pen some anonymous note in a Parisian humor newspaper. This would be an excellent topic for a magazine article, now that I think about it....

Posted by at December 24, 2003 08:20 AM
Comments

Tell Jeff Jarvis! Then maybe we can start a movement to launch French blogs and ship them digital cameras. It won't be as easy as in a country with traditions of democracy like Iran or Iraq, but it probably won't be any harder than Afghanistan.

Posted by: Mike G at December 25, 2003 04:01 PM

(yes, before you even say it, I do know about Dissident Frogman and Merde in France and so on, it was a joke)

Posted by: Mike G at December 25, 2003 04:03 PM

Sounds like France has become Mexico with better food and geographic inconvenience.

Posted by: Jim at December 25, 2003 07:35 PM

Actually, things aren't so bad anymore. What you refer to happened mostly in the 70s and 80s, before you had laws on party financing. Before that, political parties had no official way to be financed and thus used vehicles such as Urba to get large companies to "contribute". This happened on all sides, and with the right in full power until 1981, they had more opportunities to squeeze public works, utilities and other countires depending on public contracts. Mitterrand played a big - if indirect - role in stopping that: first by starting decentralisation in 1981, which brought power - and thus corruption - to the regions and made it easier to uncover; and second by giving more independence to the media and the judiciary, which they used to bring such scandals to justice - and to the public. corrupt officials from all sides were brought to justice (Urba for the socialists, Carignon and Noir for the right and many more, including the communist party which was just as bad) and eventually new laws were voted (between 1991 and 1995) to provide official funding to parties and tighten controls on previously condoned behaviour. The good thing is that the press and the judiciary are much more aggressive nowadays. Chirac will be brought before a judge (3 actually, as there are 3 cases outstanding) the instant he leaves the Elysee Palace, where he benefits from temporary immunity, and everybody knows about it. (While mayor of Paris, among other things, he provided imaginary jobs paid by the Paris budget for lots of workers in his party)
Now it is true that there still is this complicity between the political elite and the top journalists, but it is not as it used to be in the past - call it one of the side benefits of globalisation!
If you are looking for more information on these scandals on a regular basis, you can read "Le Canard enchainé", it is a satirical weekly (which unfortunately does not exist in electronic form) which has unearthed or made public most political scandals of the past 25 years. It is also one of the very few newspapers on earth to make money WITHOUT advertising - it is thus to this press is still more unworthy of trust than elsewhere.

Posted by: JFM at January 4, 2004 10:32 PM

I'm quite late on this topic (I'm back from 2 weeks of holidays, french style...). Just a couple of points :
- Is your head of one important publication Serge July of Liberation ? I remember that, though not widely commented, his car crash while drunk was fairly well reported at the time.
- the point about complicity ... between media owners and government makes me think of Berlusconi's Italy before france actualy.
- Urba : Jerome makes good points about this. I'll just add, for the information of US readers that may be interested (is there anyone...) that this system of 'taxation' on public building was setup by leftist parties (socialist and communist) that were in the opposition from 1948 to 1981 (but holded several big cities), and didn't had any other acces to public money. The majority had other ways of financment, equally illegal (as there was no legal way indeed).

Posted by: philippe at January 5, 2004 01:43 AM
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Posted by: philippe at January 5, 2004 01:43 AM
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disgree. In France it is not the journalists who bend backwards to please the politicains it is the opposite. French jouranlsist have long ago lost any scrupple about using theuir position for advancing their positions and interests. And a journalist can do much: not only attack directly what he dislikes, but attack or silence any deed of the politician.

A coommenter in a radio threatened Alain Juppe about the incoming elections for wanting to abolish the special tax exemption of journalists and effectively hze spet the following year building Juppe's impopularity (did I mention that he waged his personal jihad on a tax-payer funded radio)? Several of Jospin's decisions (like Corsican policy) were motivated by the will of gaining support of "Le Monde".

The same, journalists pushing their agenda instead of informing, is true in other countries but in France this aggraviated by the fact that all the journalists have basically the same ideology (pro-euro, antiamerican, soft on crime, "liberal chic", most journalists of big press came from the same schools) and because the French have not the mental filters of people who have lived under a dictature. Theerefore, they believe what their press says and this press is still more unworthy of trust than elsewhere.

Posted by: JFM at January 4, 2004 10:32 PM

I'm quite late on this topic (I'm back from 2 weeks of holidays, french style...). Just a couple of points :
- Is your head of one important publication Serge July of Liberation ? I remember that, though not widely commented, his car crash while drunk was fairly well reported at the time.
- the point about complicity ... between media owners and government makes me think of Berlusconi's Italy before france actualy.
- Urba : Jerome makes good points about this. I'll just add, for the information of US readers that may be interested (is there anyone...) that this system of 'taxation' on public building was setup by leftist parties (socialist and communist) that were in the opposition from 1948 to 1981 (but holded several big cities), and didn't had any other acces to public money. The majority had other ways of financment, equally illegal (as there was no legal way indeed).

Posted by: philippe at January 5, 2004 01:43 AM
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