L’état, c’est Jacques

Glen Newey

 L’état, c’est Jacques. In a moving peroration at the end of the ex-president’s recent corruption trial, his lawyer Georges Kiejman declared: ‘You can’t drag down Jacques Chirac, who embodied France for twelve years, without dragging down France itself.’ The jowly satyr, pronounced too gaga to appear in court, makes for one of Marianne’s unlikelier incarnations. But Kiejman’s cri de coeur captures the fusion of executive, judicial and administrative power in French politics. Fuelling the process is, of course, wonga.

In the background to the trial lie the (business) affairs of Chirac, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Karl Lagerfeld. In 1996 Jean-Claude Méry, a property speculator and fund-raiser for Chirac’s RPR party, recorded a video implicating Chirac in various malversations while Mayor of Paris, including bungs to the RPR from public-sector tenderers for building contracts. Before his death Méry passed the tape to his lawyer Alain Belot, who also represented Lagerfeld. The French authorities had been after the rag mogul throughout the 1990s over unpaid tax. Lagerfeld had claimed Monegasque residency, but by the end of the decade the sham had worn thin and, as L’Express reported, he faced a French tax bill of nearly 300 million francs. With Belot present, at a meeting on 6 April 1999, Strauss-Kahn, then finance minister in Lionel Jospin’s cabinet, got on the phone to revenue HQ to knock Lagerfeld’s tab down to just 10 million francs. The Chanel boss was able to foot the drastically truncated bill by off-loading a spare château in Brittany.

In an apparent quid pro quo, Belot then handed Méry’s videotape to Strauss-Kahn, presumably for use against Chirac in a future presidential or Parisian mayoralty bid. When L’Express broke the story in 2000, Strauss-Kahn first claimed that he had lost the video, and then that he didn’t have a compatible player for it, though you might think that funds would have stretched to a Betamax. Méry died of cancer in 1999, and so is telling no tales.

Strauss-Kahn, now indicted in France on another sexual assault charge brought by the journalist Tristane Banon, has a hefty log of pecuniary scandals to his name, including the MNEF (Mutuelle nationale des étudiants de France) affair, which caused him to resign as finance minister in 1999: in another alleged job-creation wheeze, Strauss-Kahn quit over accusations that he had trousered 600,000 francs from Mnef for no work, and made out bogus invoices after the fact, using a font that didn’t exist at the time the invoices were dated. DSK was investigated but eventually (a term that crops up time and again in reports) ‘blanchi’. The Tapie affair, implicating Christine Lagarde, DSK’s successor as IMF chief, rumbles on.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s old foe Dominique de Villepin was recently exonerated in the Clearstream graft trial – though he has also been accused, along with his mentor and Gaullist ally Chirac, of pocketing $20 million in sweeteners from African dictators, notably Omar Bongo of Gabon, during his term as prime minister. That charge came from Robert Bourgi, now a key Sarko ally, and was presumably timed in the light of de Villepin’s acquittal to torpedo the latter’s designs on the presidency in next year’s elections.

Meanwhile, the president faces accusations that Edouard Balladur’s presidential election bid was funded by kickbacks from selling submarines to Pakistan in 1995; Sarkozy was Balladur’s campaign spokesman. No one would care that much, but 11 French submarine engineers were blown up in a bomb attack in Karachi in 2002 in alleged reprisal for France’s failure to cough up the lagniappe it promised to Pakistani officials to swing the sub deal. Olivier Morice, the lawyer for the 11, has implicated Nicolas Bazire, Balladur’s election campaign manager and best man at Sarko’s latest wedding. Bazire has been arrested.

Chirac, the third French head of state after Louis XVI and Marshal Pétain to wind up in the dock, will get off: the prosecution has pronounced its own case without merit. In the film Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen’s character is berated by his sister: ‘With you it’s all nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm, and orgasm.’ ‘In France,’ Allen says, ‘I could run on that slogan and win.’