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The Wall Street Journal Europe

June 1, 2001

International Commentary:
Clintonism in France

In 1998, as the impeachment of Bill Clinton drew nigh, it became fashionable among pooh-pooh artists on both sides of the Atlantic to draw invidious comparisons between the president's screeching, sex-obsessed accusers in America and the more forgiving view taken of such things by those worldly Europeans, especially the French. So the president had a young mistress? It's natural. So he lied about it to the public, and under oath? It's also natural. So there are allegations of shady real-estate ventures, influence peddling, campaign-finance law violations and so on? Ancient history, boring, no controlling legal authority and so on. Then along came the case of Roland Dumas.

Mr. Dumas, a long-serving foreign minister in the government of Francois Mitterrand and later chief judge of France's Constitutional Court, was sentenced on Wednesday to six months in prison and fined one million francs (152,000 euros) on corruption charges. But that description doesn't begin to do justice to the scope of his case -- to say nothing of its juiciness. The French people are not amused, however.

The outline of the story, as if taken from a film starring an older Catherine Deneuve, is as follows. In 1989, prosecutors alleged, Mr. Dumas wangled a job for his mistress, erstwhile underwear model Christine Deviers-Joncour, at Elf Acquitaine, the then state-owned oil giant now part of TotalFina. For her work, she received approximately $9 million over the next four years, including a luxury apartment in Paris, which Mr. Dumas made frequent use of. Additionally, she showered her lover with $40,000 statuettes and $1,700 shoes (we'd like to have a look at those), among other tokens of affection. Ms. Deviers-Joncour has since written a book about all this, titled "Whore of the Republic."

It's not yet clear what Elf got for its money. But speculation is that the company, acting as a middleman for arms maker Thomson-CSF, was attempting to gain Mr. Dumas' consent for the sale of French-built frigates to Taiwan. To his credit, Mr. Dumas, who archly noted during the trial that "one does not buy a statesman with a pair of ankle boots," was steadfast in his opposition to the deal, though Mitterrand eventually approved it. We make no judgment about his case. But it's clear that top Elf officials appointed by Mitterrand were in sleaze well above their ankles. Recent audits have found they misappropriated more than a quarter-billion dollars. On Wednesday, a frequently tearful Ms. Deviers-Joncour, along with former Elf chief executive Loik Le Floch-Prigent and his deputy Alfred Sirven, were also sentenced to prison.

And that's not all. French magistrates have recently looked into corruption allegations against President Jacques Chirac, former Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi, former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Bank of France Governor Jean-Claude Trichet, former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua and Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of the former President. These are only the most prominent affaires, but they give a good indication of the suspected rot in French government circles, on the right as well as the left. Mr. Sirven, indeed, claims to have knowledge of things that could "blow up the republic 20 times over."

We do not wish that for France. What we do welcome is the growing consensus among the French on why corruption is so widespread. First, as fraud investigator Antoine Gaudin has noted, "business and politicians are in cahoots" -- the result of a long tradition of corporatism and state intervention in the economy. Then too, France's elites have long been protected by various forms of legal immunity, not to mention shielding from the press. A seven-year presidential term has served to shield high government officials from electoral accountability.

It's instructive that these affaires are coming to light as French economic policy moves (haltingly) away from dirigisme and towards greater freedom, transparency and accountability in corporate management. Last year's referendum shortening the presidential term to five years will likely have a positive effect. But the most important check is voter outrage. Fortunately, the average Frenchman is finally showing the kind of unsophistication about sex, lies and influence peddling in high places that subjected Bill Clinton to impeachment.

And by the way: We take note of a recent study in the Journal of Sex Research comparing the sexual habits of 3,432 Americans with 4,580 of their French peers. Turns out sexual habits on both sides of the Atlantic are about the same, save a slightly greater propensity of French 20-somethings toward monogamy. So much, then, for the notion of French "sophistication" -- or American lack thereof -- in matters amorous.

-- From The Wall Street Journal Europe


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