Les Affaires, or Zola Was Right

Les Affaires, or Zola Was Right

In the electioneering mood of France at the turn of the year, the good advice is not, as in a whodunit, cherchez la femme but cherchez l’argent.


In the electioneering mood of France at the turn of the year, the good advice is not, as in a whodunit, cherchez la femme but cherchez l’argent. The first round of balloting in the presidential poll takes place April 24, and Paris is full of plots and the scent of putrefaction as political scandals follow one another in quick succession. Since Socialists are prominent in some of them, the left loses part of its reputation for clean hands, but,the timing of these affairs and the differential treatment of the culprits cast doubts on the.independence of the judiciary. Since much of the corruption is connected with the rapidly rising cost of politics, proposals are afoot to bring some law into this jungle. Yet can one seriously reverse the trend in a country where a book attacking egalitarianism is a best seller, the reputation of an actress is .h&t by the vagaries of the money market and- even the manuscript of the most famous document of political honesty–Emile Zola’s "J’accuse"–gets involved. in a sordid story of inheritance? The common theme, of these Parisian winter tales is a hackneyed postwar tune: Money is the root of all evil.

A Socialist Dr. Strangelove. The first scandal affecting the Socialist Party is the case of Christian Nucci, a former Minister of Overseas Cooperation and Development (essentially with Africa) in the government of Laurent Fabius. Nucci and his chief of staff, Yves Chalier, are accused of having used public funds under false pretenses by channeling them through a phony company. Some of this double accounting is routine. Secret payments for, say, security arrangements during a Franco-African conference are placed under another item. But Chalier apparently spent around $1 million for personal purposes, such as the purchase of a forty-seven room chateau, and Nucci roughly a quarter that amount, mainly for his electoral campaign. For offenses committed in office a minister can only be tried by a High Court of Justice selected from his fellow parliamentarians. It is only the third time since 1815 that this procedure, which requires the prior approval of the National Assembly and the Senate, has been used. The ruling coalition, which has a majority in both chambers, carried last December the final vote that set the trial in motion, timed to coincide with the electoral campaign.

The second case is that of Luchaire, the arms manufacturer that, between 1983 and 1986, despite an embargo, supplied Iran with artillery shells, pretending that the shipments were for another destination. The Socialist government, after a brief investigation, turned the matter over to the courts March 12, 1986–that is to say, three days before the election that removed it from office. The Chirac government slowed down me judicial proceedings by ordering a new internal inquiry. Although it received the report last June, it waited until November to leak the text to the press and then publish it officially. The document hurt. the Socialists by reporting that François Mitterrand and his then-Minister of Defense, Charles Hernu, had been informed of the breach. It also cast doubt on the actual conduct of a senior member of Hernu’s staff and, suggested that one of the Minister’s friends got a commission of nearly $500,000 in this shady business.

Before discussing, the third case, some preliminary remarks are necessary. It is an open secret in Paris that political parties receive a lot of money illegally. The Gaullists were known at one time as the real estate party, since this was their main source of income. (A friendly realtor would buy a piece of arable land not authorized for construction, then be granted a building permit and share with the party a portion of the huge profit from the resale of the land.) Another custom, common to all parties, is to employ sympathetic contractors on public works projects in towns or regions they control. The builders overcharge–and give back part of the money under the table. Finally, some businesses send bills for, say, printing leaflets, not to the party but to firms willing to put them fraudulently on their books in return for future political favors. The only problem is to avoid getting caught. The Socialist organization in Lyons forgot this, and its case is being brought to justice by the government at a politically opportune moment. The principal figure in this organization is the very same Hernu.

Charles Hernu was Mitterrand’s companion during the latter’s thirty-three years in the political wilderness. He is one of the apostles who converted the French left to the religion of the nuclear bomb. He was the Defense Minister in charge in July 5, 1985 when French intelligence agents blew up the Greenpeace vessel, Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland Harbor, New Zealand. However limited my compassion for this Socialist Dr. Strangelove, I suspect that if he were an actual–and not just spiritual–member of the ruling right, he would be less bothered by the French judiciary.

The "Buffoons of the Republic." Let us look at three cases of gentle treatment of government officials, beginning with the Chaumet affair, a high-society scandal. The Chaumet brothers, Jacques and Pierre, were owners of a famous jewelry store, founded in the eighteenth century; with its main shop in the fashionable Place Vendôme and subsidiaries in New York, London, Brussels and Geneva. They somehow managed to run up a deficit estimated at nearly $400 million and are now being prosecuted for fraudulent bankruptcy and for illegally engaging in the banking trade by setting up high-interest-bearing accounts for their biggest customers. Among the select group of seventy-four granted this privilege was the current Minister of Justice, Albin Chalandon. So far, no one is saying that the keeper of the laws did anything illegal. But other account holders have been cross-examined, and he has not. The attitude of the juge d’instruction, the examining magistrate in charge of the investigation, is understandable. After all, Chalandon is his superior. Opposition spokesmen are not the only ones to find his position in this affair, to put it politely, ambiguous.

The second example takes us back to the Nucci case. The new government saw Chalier, who wrote a confession incriminating his Minister, as an excellent weapon to use against the Socialists at the right time. Meanwhile, he was put on ice or, rather, on a back burner, since he was allowed to live in Brazil under an assumed name, with a perfectly genuine passport issued to him by the Ministry of the Interior. When Chalier came back to France and the examining magistrate wanted to know more about the issuing of this "true/false" passport, the Minister of the Interior, Charles Pasqua, did not permit his subordinates to testify, alleging that "defense secrets" were involved. But to allow the publication of the report on arms shipments to Iran, the secrets act was duly waived. Here it has been stubbornly upheld, and the Minister of Justice did not utter a word of protest against this deliberate obstruction of justice by his colleague.

The third example has to do with the National Commission for Communications and Liberty (C.N.C.L.), set up by the new government, to deal with television and to allocate broadcast frequencies to radio stations. In Paris, where competition was stiff, several existing stations had to close up shop. It was, therefore, puzzling that Radio Courtoisie, which existed only on paper, got a permit. Its only apparent asset was that it was headed by an ultraright-wing journalist, allegedly a good friend of an influential member of the C.N.C.L., Michel Droit, who is a member of the French Academy and a staunch supporter of apartheid. One of the thwarted stations chose to take the matter to court, and the magistrate, after studying the case, decided he could only proceed by impeaching Droit for abuse of his official power; (forfaiture). The use of such a hammer against an influential figure caused dismay in posh quarters. The next day, Droit’s counsel sued the judge for forfaiture–alleging bias and leaks to the press. Despite a brave stand by the chief public prosecutor, who pleaded that if magistrates kept yielding ground they would soon be perceived as the "buffoons of the Republic,” the High Court of Appeal decided in October to suspend the investigation of Droit. In December the case was transferred from its Paris judge to one in the provinces, where it is hoped it will be buried, or at least put off until after the presidential poll.

No wonder the judgment of Paris is that if you are one of the mighty you can pick your magistrate, a privilege denied a poor immigrant or even the ordinary Frenchman. Naturally, many judges know their place. Yet, quite a few, particularly the young ones, are angry. They do not wish to be clowns in a farce in which their role is to be servants not of the state, or even a class, but of the party in power.

Prohibitive Price of Politics. François Mitterrand, in a radio interview on November 16, dismissed accusations of complicity in the shipment of arms for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After all, he pointed out, it was he who, after much argument, made the political decision not to send arms to Iran and not to stop shipping them to Iraq. With his usual tactical skill, however, he switched the focus to another subject. Since money is polluting politics, he said, let us limit campaign spending and render the whole electoral process more transparent. Watching the sudden consensus that developed on the need for such actions, the skeptic will ask why neither the left nor the right, which had been (one or the other) in office for years, ever did anything about the problem. Still, better late than never.

There is no ceiling on electoraI spending in France, save the size of one’s purse. In principle, the candidates who obtain more than 5 percent of the votes get back from the state some money to corer the cost of printing and mailing their basic propaganda. In practice, this is now a mere fraction of the real costs, which. have skyrocketed. An average candidate’s budget in a parliamentary election is now estimated at more than $306,000. A serious contender in the forthcoming presidential poll is expected to spend between $30 million and $50 million (even though political advertising is not permitted on French radio or TV).

The would-be reformers have plenty on their plate. The suggestion of state subsidies for political parties, as in West Germany or Italy, meets some resistance in Paris. To allow a tax exemption for political contributions would give a clear advantage to parties representing the better-off. The idea of ministers and deputies declaring their net worth at the beginning-and end of their term in office is welcome; France could do with some glasnost in this area. It could also do with lower ceilings on campaign spending–a maximum-of $20 million for the coming presidential contest is being mentioned in a proposed bill though few people believe these limitations will be respected. If they are not, a newcomer in the competition, the Communist heretic Pierre Juquin, might be the main victim of financial bias.

Early in December, I attended the Twenty-sixth Congress of the French Communist Party. The meeting place, a modern sports hall in a Paris suburb, and the ritual were the same as on the previous occasion, only the echo of dissent was this time fainter; the rénovateurs were either gone or had been silenced. Georges Marchais, re-elected as General Secretary, reaffirmed the wisdom of the party’s current course. The leadership has clearly opted for slow agony rather than a radical cure based on a movement from below; When Marchais captured 15.5 percent of the presidential poll in 1981, the result was considered disastrous. This time, he chose not to compete, and his stand-in, the earthy André Lajoinie, will probably be quite happy with half that proportion.

This time the erosion of Communist support may not have quite the same meaning. Heretofore, discontented Communist supporters could stay at home, voting with their bottoms; resign themselves to the impossibility of radical change and vote Socialist; or, if they were angry and bewildered, switch to the racist Jean-Marie Le Pen. This time they will also have the choice of the renegade Communist Juquin. A teacher of German by trade, Juquin is a pure product of the C.P. He was a protégé of Marchais and for years the party’s official spokesman. As such, for many he is not the best symbol of renewal. Yet, with feminists, ecologists and leftists supporting him, he now represents something more–the possibility for a voter to say that he or she is resigned neither to Communist sclerosis nor to Socialist betrayal. Two questions remain: Without a party machine and with a planned budget of less than $2 million, can he make an impact in this highly commercialized contest? And is m election the best terrain for a political revival?

It’s the Rich That Gets the Blame. At the top of the French nonfiction best-seller list is a book with the eloquent title The Egalitarian Machine. It purports to demonstrate that equality "has become a reality"; indeed, that "having exceeded its goal of equality," the system has become counterproductive. Class conflicts are now a reactionary myth and the new privileged are civil servants with the security of tenure. Now, a postman or a schoolteacher in France earns around $12,000 a year, and the author of the book, Main Minc, a civil servant turned European representative of the Italian tycoon Carlo de Benedetti, would probably consider his boss mean if he offered him that amount as an annual salary increase. So his argument is not a very tactful or decent one. But who cares? In demanding higher death duties and lower income tax, Minc is pleading pro domo sua, not for the moneyed gentry but for young capitalists on the make.

The author argues, rightly, that the welfare state benefits the middle classes more than the poor, whose numbers have risen dramatically with the economic crisis. Does Minc, therefore, propose to expand welfare and extend the security of tenure? No, he wants to abolish the safety net for all. Inventing a curious common cause between dynamic capitalists and outcasts, he pleads dogmatically for more flexibility, more market relations and invokes an imaginary America where the great "inequality of incomes” is combined with the "equality of opportunities."

Perusing this manifesto for yuppies, I could not help humming to "It’s the poor that gets the pleasure, it’s the rich that gets the blame," and I would not have bothered you with such an example of special pleading if the book did not herald a potential change of mood. Minc is on the best-seller list, but he was disowned by some of his fellow trendies who only yesterday thought one could combine a leftish reputation with idolatry of the market. Sympathizing with rich men and attacking privileged postmen is a bit much. The financial crash last October marked a turn in the ideological trend. Political weathercocks in Paris are already testing which way the^ wind is blowing.

The Lady Is for Burning. The fall of the Bourse claimed an unexpected victim, the beautiful Catherine Deneuve. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné published the other day a drawing of a battered Deneuve, with some plaster sticking on her face, proclaiming: "I only told you réfléchissez [‘think it over’]." The caption requires a word of explanation. Deneuve looks like a distinguished woman capable at any moment of reverting to her sexy role as Buñuel’s Belle du Jour. Such an attractive upper-class figure was thought perfect to advertise the Compagnie de Suez, when the government decided to sell that bank to private investors. In a repetitive TV campaign, specialists praised the assets of Suez, and the distinguished Deneuve capped their sales talks with a meaningful "réfléchissez." The trouble is that by the time the buyers got their shares, the Bourse had collapsed and the bargain proved disastrous. The Canard wittily invented Deneuve’s plea: I didn’t tell you to buy, simply to think it over. An invitation to sin is forgivable but an inducement to bad investment is not, and this is how the reputation of a star was battered.

"J’accuse " for Sale. Sotheby’s was hoping to stage a superb auction on December 8 in the principality of Monaco. The great-granddaughter of Emile Zola was offering to the highest bidder her great-grandfather’s archives, including key documents connected with the Dreyfus case. Her own father and the French authorities intervened, and the matter was taken to court and the auction postponed. Instead of being dispersed, the collection may thus be kept together at the Bibliothéque Nationale or the institute dealing with the Dreyfus affaire. The very precious documents include the manuscript of probably the most famous piece of journalism ever written, Zola’s "J’accuse," published in l’Aurore on Thursday, January 13,1898. In writing it, the highly successful novelist risked a trial for libel, provisional exile and a terrible campaign of vilification. He was to play a leading part in the struggle between the upholders of the army, the church, the established order and the defenders of justice and truth. (And this document of disinterestedness is valued today at roughly $1 million.)

Now, as fifteen exiled Iranians are brutally expelled to Gabon to please Imam Khomeini, as the murderers of native Kanaks in New Caledonia leave their trial scot-free, the noise of protest in Paris is not deafening. Sartre is dead and, after five years of Socialist rule, the progressive "intellectual"–a term born during the battle over Dreyfus–looks like a vanishing species. Yet, let us not exaggerate the gloom. In their time, too, they had their host of scoundrels and time-servers. Dreyfus had to wait till 1906, four years after Zola’s death, for a full rehabilitation. And today the younger generation is clearly rising, ready to come out into the streets to fight against racism. the political. weathercocks are quite right to scrutinize the sky. A change in the ideological weather may be coming.

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