France: To the Highest Bidder

Alain Juppé, the right-hand man and heir apparent of President Jacques Chirac, has been banned from office for a decade after being found guilty of illegal party financing. The political scandal has assumed the proportions of a Watergate à la française.

Breaking a promise to resign from his political offices if found guilty, Juppé announced his appeal on prime-time television. ‘‘Who hasn’t made mistakes?’’ he told an audience of 13 million viewers on TF1 on Feb. 3, “For 20 years, all political parties had difficulties financing their parties.’’

French law allows him to stay in office while his appeal is heard. The process is expected to take at least a year. A former prime minister and current mayor of Bordeaux, Juppé is head of the president’s center-right party, the Union for a Popular Majority (UMP). He had been expected to run for the presidency in 2007 if Chirac, who is now 71, stepped down.

Juppé’s crime—he put seven party officials on the Paris city-hall payroll—is said to be part of a much larger payment scam created by Chirac while the latter was mayor of the French capital, in which construction companies were forced to pay secret kickbacks for public contracts. Le Nouvel Observateur (Feb. 4) noted that Chirac is named in nine ongoing investigations for corruption.

“The president of the republic has been overtaken by his past,” Le Monde (Feb. 6) said, “a past that is not worthy of the republican values he is supposed to embody.”

There is no doubt that Chirac would also be on trial if it were legally possible: He is protected by his immunity as head of state. According to Le Point (Feb. 5), “Juppé’s heavy sentence has struck his [Chirac’s] system like a shot in the heart.” The rival L’Express (Feb. 8) said that the judges “clearly wanted to teach a republican and democratic lesson.”

On the weekend after sentencing Juppé, one of his judges revealed that she and her two colleagues were the victims of harassment. “Our offices have been regularly ‘visited’ over these last months,” Catherine Pierce told Le Parisien (Feb. 1). “Our work computers were gone through. We also think our telephones were tapped.” Pierce did not notify the prosecutor immediately, she later told L’Express (Feb. 12), “because we thought the origin of the taps was official or governmental.”

In a move widely interpreted as an attempt to undermine the judges’ authority, Chirac created his own investigative panel to probe their complaints.

Chirac has already paid a political price for the Juppé affair. A poll in Le Point (Feb. 12) showed that 51 percent of the respondents have a favorable view of the president—down from 58 percent previously. The “prime beneficiary” of Chirac’s declining standing, noted the regional daily Nice-Matin (Feb. 7), is likely to be the right-wing National Front, which is anti-immigration and anticorruption. Its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen “has practically no need to campaign.”

“The symbol of insolent impunity—isn’t it the president of the Republic himself?” asked Le Pen in an interview published in his party magazine, Français d’Abord (Jan. 30). A press release on the magazine’s Web site (Feb. 3) predicted that French voters “will punish…the arrogant dishonesty of these princes who do not know how to govern us.”