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Will Scandals Drown Democracy in France?

Nothing can be more toxic for a government than scandals combined with economic and financial depression. That was the recipe for the French Revolution of 1789: the Queen’s Necklace scandal (a silly archbishop attempting to have a stupendously expensive piece of jewelry purchased on state funds for Queen Marie Antoinette, unbeknownst to her) made it impossible for King Louis XVI to undertake much needed fiscal and economic reforms.

And this is where republican France stands now under President François Hollande. While unemployment soars (from almost 11% of the labor force to about 20%, depending on how you define it), both the ruling Socialist Party and the conservative opposition are reeling from charges of corruption or other criminal activities.

The latest case involves Claude Gueant, who from 2007 to 2012 was the president’s chief of staff and then the minister of the interior in Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative administration. Gueant — who is under investigation for his role in an arbitration that may have benefited political ally Bernard Tapie, and for the illegal foreign funding of Sarkozy’s presidential campaign in 2007 — is at loss to explain where he got very large amounts of money from while being a senior government official, or how he spent them. Over half a million euros (almost one million dollars) are at issue.

He insists that he made some money in 2008 selling paintings to an art dealer in Malaysia, and that he was getting allowances in cash as a senior government official. The first point is yet to be clarified; the second point seems quite dubious. Such allowances did exist in the past, but were gradually abolished by Lionel Jospin, a socialist prime minister, and then by Nicolas Sarkozy himself, then a minister of the interior and later of finance, from 2001 to 2006. The more unconvincing Gueant is on both matters, the more it will be rumored that this money has to do with occult funding.

There is no such a thing as a free lunch, and politics has a cost, too — even in democracies, or especially in democracies. In order to be elected, you need polls to understand what the public opinion is concerned about. You also need to communicate: from media exposure to public meetings with both the elite and the populace. You need a staff, premises, travel arrangements. One way to fund politics is to raise voluntary contributions from individuals and companies, either directly or through the agency of political action committees. As long as donors are requested to make their donations public (thus allowing citizens to check whether they are getting undue preferential treatment from the government thereafter), there should not be anything sinister about that. Except that many people think it is unfair that rich people — most big donors are rich — should carry so much weight in the process.

Americans request, at times, that private donations be curtailed, even if donors tend to support liberal causes or liberal politicians as much as conservative ones. Most Europeans, however, get nuts about any private money interfering with government. Not out of rational considerations, mind you, but rather for religious or deep cultural reasons.

Western European Christianity (and Western European Catholicism in particular) was mired for centuries in a near phobia of money or, more accurately, of the process of making money (even if the actual teaching of the churches was less fanatical). The pre-Christian tripartite model, inherited from archaic Aryan Eurasia, was even more influential: society was supposed to be composed of three orders (the rulers and fighters, the priests and intellectuals, the workers and businessmen) that should never mix, whatever the context.

Since Europeans are uncomfortable with private donations, how do they fund politics? Theoretically, through very limited private donations and a lot of public allowances. In France, for instance, every political party gets public monies according to the votes it garnered in the most recent polls, within a 5% ceiling. No wonder so many minor parties and splinter candidacies plague the system.

Even so, the political class cannot make it. In order to be actual players (see above), parties and individual politicians need real money, not Salvation Army baskets. They have accordingly resorted to occult or foreign resources.

In France, for an extended period of time, the colonies would do — the new independent states in Africa and other places. The French government would grant them aid. Part of it would go to humanitarian projects. Another part to the local rulers’ private accounts and assets in Western countries, or elsewhere. A third part would come back, in some guise, to shakers and movers that helped the French government to stay in business. A scandal about these practices — the Carrefour du Développement case — almost destroyed the socialist Mitterrand administration in the 1980s.

Another source of cash was the Arab and Islamic oil world. Kings, emirs, sheikhs, ayatollahs, and casual dictators were both rich and somehow unsecure. They needed friends in the Western world they so much despised, and where they so much wanted to escape to if needed. There is much talk these days of the state of Qatar buying all of France, or supporting all of France. In previous times, such behavior was ascribed to the Saudis and the Iranians, of course. But also to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqis, and Qaddafi’s Libyans.

Many people — and many investigative judges — think that Qaddafi may have contributed to Sarkozy’s campaign in 2007 (as the late dictator’s son Sayif al-Islam Qaddafi has claimed). And that Sarkozy attempted to repay the Libyan dictator by helping him solve, right after being elected, the so-called Bulgarian nurses case, and inviting him the following autumn on an extended state visit. Also, that Qaddafi’s inordinately insulting behavior then (he had a Bedouin tent erected in front of the Elysee Palace, the French president’s residence) convinced Sarkozy that an extended Libyan blackmail campaign was in the making. And that finally Sarkozy made war with Libya in 2011 in order to have Qaddafi disposed of (or evidence of his support destroyed).

Earlier cases of illegal foreign money, still under investigation, may also impact the French conservative camp. Was some money linked to navy contracts with Saudi Arabia (the sale of frigates) and Pakistan (the sale of submarines) used for Edouard Balladur’s presidential campaign in 1995, and was Sarkozy, then a close supporter of Balladur, involved?

And what about an even earlier — and even more obscure — case: the sale of six frigates to the Taiwanese navy (an episode which may have involved both socialists and conservatives)?

Many of these matters should have been classified by now. However, new facts and new witnesses, or new links between one case and another, keep popping up almost routinely. Ziad Takieddine, a Lebanese born intermediary who was instrumental in the Saudi and Pakistani contracts of the early 1990s, was also involved in dealings with Libya in the mid-2000s. Since 2012, he has been one of the most vocal denouncers of Sarkozy and his friends.

Beyond illegal foreign money, much illegal domestic money can be found as well. Sarkozy and the conservatives are being investigated regarding undeclared personal donations by the slightly senile Liliane Bettencourt, the richest woman in France (along with her daughter, she owns L’Oréal). However, the Left is in as much trouble as the Right in this respect.

Jerome Cahuzac, the socialist minister of the budget until last month, was keeping an undeclared Swiss bank account and lied publicly about it. Prominent socialist leaders in Marseilles, France’s largest city after Paris, are under investigation for mafia-like practices (President Hollande was summoned as a witness). Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of IMF and a former socialist senior minister, is being investigated for ties with procurers in Lille; some wonder whether there might be a link with the local socialist administration. Even the case of Thomas Fabius, the 32-year-old son of the current socialist foreign minister and former prime minister Laurent Fabius, raises concern.

Can the French trust their judges, at least? When it comes to first-class investigative magistrates like Renaud Van Ruymbeke, the main investigator in the Taiwan frigates affair and many other cases, the answer is yes. However, many judges are seen as partial and politically motivated; in particular the members of Syndicat de la Magistrature (SM), a left-wing magistrates union. A few days ago, French TV journalist Clément Weill-Raynal videotaped the “Ass***** Wall” (Mur des Cons, in plain French) at the SM office: a board loaded with pictures and hate messages directed at various conservative or right-wing VIPs. Not exactly what would be expected from magistrates in a democratic country.

In other places, Weill-Raynal might have been celebrated as a courageous whistle-blower. In France, he has been lampooned by the left-wing press and the left-wing unions for “not acting properly as a journalist, and may even be penalized.