Sin City: How the French Became Puritans

The New Republic
April 30, 2001

“I represent the Mitterrand name,” the former French president’s son said unhappily as we lunched not long ago at Les Comediens, a Paris restaurant near his lawyer’s office. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, 54, who has the long cheeks and gravelly voice of his father, spends a lot of time with his lawyer these days–enduring an investigation by the government over which his father, the late Francois Mitterrand, once presided like a king.

For much of his father’s tenure, Jean-Christophe headed the “Cellule Africaine,” overseeing France’s murky relations with its former colonies in Africa. His nickname, “Father Told Me,” referred to the phrase he reportedly invoked to remind visitors of his unique access to the sphinx-like president. But his father died of cancer in 1996, and French prosecutors have become far less deferential since. So it was that, on December 1, a team of French policemen barged into Jean-Christophe’s bedroom at dawn, stood by while he dressed, and seized financial documents, appointment books, party invitations, and anything else that might relate to illegal weapons-trafficking in Africa. “There’s a lot of madness in France now,” Mitterrand muses. “There have been a lot of political affairs, you know.”

Indeed, France’s newest fashion is corruption. It’s impossible to read a newspaper or watch television without coming across news that another politician or businessman has been arrested or questioned about (select one or more of the following): bribery, fraud, perjury, theft, tax evasion, abuse of influence, and so on. Once upon a time, the French gazed at the scandals across the Atlantic and muttered about Americans’ puritanical desire to punish politicians for typical human frailties. The French were far more sophisticated; they regarded their tolerance for political mischief as a sign of maturity.

The current wave of corruption scandals, however, serves notice that the French are, once more, following the path charted by their cultural nemesis. The reporters of Le Monde appear to be taking orders from Bob Woodward, and the folks at the Palais de Justice look like Ken Starrs on the Seine. Even the terminology is Americanized: The scandal that embroils Jean-Christophe is called “Angolagate.”

The call to account might have begun two decades ago if Francois Mitterrand, elected in 1981 as the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic, had honored campaign promises to govern in a more democratic, more transparent fashion than his conservative predecessors. But he quickly adopted their imperial style. Fourteen years passed. By the time Mitterrand left office in 1995, the grand questions of past decades–the cold war, Franco-German relations–had been settled. The behind-closed-doors privileges the political elite had enjoyed, almost as emergency powers during decades of threats to French interests, real and perceived, seemed unnecessary. It was time for France to become a normal country, and that meant, among other things, that politicians would not be treated as untouchable mandarins. The current division of power–a conservative president and socialist prime minister–hastened matters by diluting any single party’s political control over prosecutors.

This turn of events has not been welcomed at the Palais de l’Elysée, where President Jacques Chirac refuses to answer prosecutors’ questions about the Boss Tweed way in which he conducted himself as mayor of Paris. (A former aide accused Chirac of being present during the handover of a suitcase filled with $700,000 in kickbacks; Chirac dismissed the charge as “an abracadabra tale.”) Chirac’s handpicked successor at City Hall, now former Mayor Jean Tiberi, is being probed for arranging kickbacks, doling out city-owned apartments to friends and family, and placing political supporters on voting rolls even though they didn’t live in the city or, in some cases, were dead.

But these scandals are stale baguettes compared with the trial of Roland Dumas, former foreign minister and former president of the Constitutional Court. The 78-year-old was tried earlier this year for allegedly accepting bribes, including handmade shoes and antique statues, from his younger mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, who was on the payroll of Elf, a state-owned oil company. At the heart of the case–a verdict is expected in May–is the accusation that Dumas arranged the lucrative Elf job, which included several million dollars in salary, bonuses, and expenses, even though, according to prosecutors, Deviers-Joncour didn’t do much except sleep with her minister.

Dumas has denied the charges, telling the judge, with great indignation, “You cannot buy a statesman with a pair of shoes.” He threatened unspecified measures of revenge against “certain prosecutors” and suggested one of them had been a Nazi. His petulance is understandable: In the good old days, who would have cared if a minister placed his mistress on a government payroll?

And, just when it seemed things couldn’t get any juicier, Alfred Sirven, a top Elf official who allegedly funneled the money to Dumas’s mistress, was nabbed in a Philippine villa with a Filipina girlfriend several decades his junior. When police burst in, Sirven opened his cell phone, extracted its microchip, and swallowed it. With developments like that, France’s TV news has started sounding like an outlandish soap opera in which viewers learn what suave Roland really promised to mistress Christine, who is mad at Alfred for not defending her honor. As the woman who cut my hair one day remarked, “It’s really like `Dallas,’ isn’t it?” Watergate was dull by comparison.

Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, however, has not enjoyed the show. Three weeks after police ruined his sleep, he was arrested, driven to a nineteenth-century prison, and thrown into a cell next to a Nazi-era war criminal. He remained there for three weeks, until his mother paid his $725,000 bail (“ransom,” she called it). His alleged crime was splashed across the front page of virtually every French newspaper: that he accepted $1.8 million from a shadowy arms merchant for facilitating an illegal deal in which $563 million in weaponry was sold to Angola. Mitterrand says the payments were for consultations on an oil deal.

As Mitterrand progressed from one course to another during our leisurely lunch, sipping his way through several glasses of Bordeaux, he recalled his first encounter with the prosecutor who signed his arrest warrant.

“Name of father?” the prosecutor asked.

“There are sixty million people in France who know the answer!” Mitterrand’s lawyer objected.

The prosecutor said nothing as he typed into his computer: “F-R-A-N-C-O-I-S.”

I asked Mitterrand what went through his mind as he was shipped off to jail.

“Nothing,” he replied. “You are in shock.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.