Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

France’s justice minister caught in a conflict of interest

Facing action over corruption allegations, President Macron’s ministers are out to neuter the messenger

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
9 March 2021, 11.25am
Eric Dupond-Moretti, Minister of Justice, at the Élysée Palace in Paris, February, 2021
PA/Lionel Urman. All rights reserved

France’s Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti appeared before three of France’s most senior judges on Monday 8 March. The judges form the investigating panel for the Court of Justice of the Republic, the special court set up to hear cases against ministers or the president when they are accused of breaking the law while in office.

Dupond-Moretti, one of the most flamboyant and controversial figures at the bar in France, was brought before the court by Anticor, an association that has pursued corruption in public life in France since it was founded in 2002.

A career defence lawyer, Dupond-Moretti was plucked out of daily legal practice to become justice minister, in a surprise appointment by President Emmanuel Macron in July 2020. A month before, it had been revealed that his phone had been tapped by the investigators of the National Financial Prosecutor (PNF) as part of its corruption investigation into former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Describing the investigators’ methods as those of “thugs”, he brought a formal legal complaint against the PNF, a complaint he later dropped when he was appointed minister. However, his ministerial predecessor, Nicole Belloubet, had already required the judicial inspectorate to look into the phone tapping.

Dupond-Moretti then went on a widely publicised holiday with a lawyer friend, Thierry Herzog. Herzog just happened to be one of the co-accused in the corruption case against Sarkozy. At the beginning of March, both Sarkozy and Herzog were found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison (two of them suspended). 

Long before that decision, the judicial inspectorate had given the PNF a clean bill of health. But Dupond-Moretti immediately demanded a second inquiry, this time into three named investigators.

Anticor’s case is this: “This [second] inquiry appeared to be just an administrative inspection. In reality, it sought to settle some personal accounts and send a message to the prosecutors who were bringing the accusation against Nicolas Sarkozy and Thierry Herzog. In doing this, the Minister used the inspection of those investigators who had inquired into him and his best friend, against a prosecutor who would be seeking a sentence against this friend in a couple of months time.”

The case was lodged with the Court of Justice of the Republic on 9 October. On 8 January, France’s senior public prosecutor announced that the case would proceed, hence Dupond-Moretti’s appearance before the three appeal court judges who sit on the CJR. The court’s other judges are six deputies chosen by the National Assembly and six senators chosen by the upper house of the French parliament. Of those 12, ten are from Sarkozy’s Les Républicains party, Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) or his centrist allies.

Sarkozy was not judged by the CJR because the corruption charge concerned matters that occurred after his term as president had ended. But it was the CJR that, on 4 March, found former prime minister Édouard Balladur not guilty of using kickbacks from secret commissions on arms sales to Pakistan to fund his failed 1995 presidential election campaign. Balladur’s defence minister at the time was found guilty, however. Balladur’s defence has always been that he did not know the origin of some ten million euros that plopped into his campaign accounts anonymously. He thought everything had been funded by the sale of T-shirts.

Anticor’s crusade against corruption in public life

While all this has been going on, another drama has linked Dupond-Moretti’s Ministry of Justice with Anticor. Only, to avoid a further conflict of interest, the final denouement of this plot will be signed off by Macron’s prime minister, Jean Castex, and not by the minister of justice.

A bit of background first. Eric Alt, Anticor’s vice-president, explained to me that a driving force behind the establishment of his anti-corruption organisation was the second round of the 2002 presidential election in which the sitting president, Jacques Chirac, was opposed by the far right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. “Many felt that one of the reasons why Le Pen got into the second round was the timidity shown by Lionel Jospin, the candidate for the left, when it came to fighting corruption. They did not want to leave it to Le Pen to be the one to claim to have ‘clean hands’.”

Some politically active figures still belong to Anticor, but its success in securing prosecutions of corrupt figures in French public life has brought in many ordinary members of the public and they now form the overwhelming majority of its 6,000 members. It is organised into 92 local groups, many of which are active in investigating corruption in local government, their efforts contributing to the 115 affairs Anticor currently has its eyes on.

“Each country has its own form of corruption,” said Alt. “In France there is an extreme verticality of power, without enough to counterbalance it. In local government, for instance, power lies with the mayor rather than with the full council. At the national level, the role of representative politics has been seriously neutralised, meaning that the courts have a greater role today in controlling the activity of the State.”

‘In France there is an extreme verticality of power, without enough to counterbalance it’

To operate effectively, Anticor needs to be able to take the initiative. The 2013 law that established the PNF also permitted the Ministry of Justice to ‘approve’ bodies such as Anticor to act as civil parties in judicial proceedings. This means it can provide evidence to the prosecutor and can reopen cases closed by judicial investigators.

One such reopened case concerned the President of the National Assembly, Richard Ferrand, one of Macron’s first recruits from the Socialist Party in his drive for the Elysée. For Ferrand, Anticor is “a sort of private prosecutor”. The case against him concerns property deals in Brittany.

Anticor was first approved by the ministry to act in this way in 2015. The approval lasts for three years. Another order was signed by Belloubet (in her then role as justice minister) on 15 February 2018. On 14 February this year, the day before the approval would have lapsed, an order was published in the Journal officie l (the French government’s gazette) extending it until 2 April.

Anticor lodged its application for renewal back at the beginning of October 2020. Since then, there has been something of a press campaign against the group, focusing on exactly who funds it. The whisper from those in power is also that Anticor is politically biased. Inevitably, the organisation has had some followers of President Macron in its sights. Another case it has reopened concerns allegations against Macron’s closest official, Alexis Kohler, the Elysée secretary general.

Government officials looking at the application for renewal of that crucial approval asked Anticor for the names of its main financial supporters. Anticor refused to reveal them, but the government persisted. So Anticor went to France’s authority on data protection, the Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés (CNIL), which in February backed the organisation’s stance.

The ‘methods of thugs’

It is worth quoting the key sentence in the CNIL decision. It was, it said, “inclined to take a strict interpretation” of the law covering highly personal, sensitive information. “The fact of being a donor associated with the activities of Anticor could indicate a political opinion in the sense of Article 9 of the (European Union’s) General Data Protection Regulation. Such personal information is the object of a particularly protective judicial regime particularly because of the risks run in the event of disclosure.”

One of the reasons why that “protective judicial regime” is there is so that politicians in power cannot just intimidate those working for justice. If they could, that really would mean that the “methods of thugs” ruled the day.

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