Politicians’ brushes with law are no badge of honour
Examine the careers of prominent financial fraudsters in France in recent years, and you’ll soon notice that more than a few of them are also conservative politicians.
They include Jacques Chirac, the country’s President for 12 years up until 2007, and Alain Juppé, who was his Prime Minister.
Both have been found guilty of defrauding those who voted them into power.
Christine Lagarde, their former party colleague, was found guilty of financial negligence when she was France’s Finance Minister.
Nicolas Sarkozy, who took over from Chirac as head of state, faces trial over more serious allegations still, as does his own Prime Minister François Fillon.
All are traditional Gaullist conservatives – politicians nominally committed to the Roman Catholic morals of former President Charles de Gaulle.
In Britain, even a whiff of such wrongdoing is likely to result in immediate banishment from public life.
It would certainly be impossible for those with a background in corruption to stand for high office, but that is exactly what the French do.
Juppé was runner-up in the race to become conservative candidate in the 2017 presidential election, and was beaten by Fillon – who had already been charged by prosecutors.
The idea that convicted politicians can brush themselves down and carry on as normal extends to their international reputations.
Lagarde recently stood down as head of the International Monetary Fund after being nominated to take over as President of the European Central Bank; while men like Chirac and Juppé are feted as elder statesmen wherever they go.
Such a laissez-faire approach was thrown into sharp focus in September when Patrick Balkany, a long-term senior member of Les Républicains (the current name for the Gaullist conservatives) and a crony of men like Sarkozy, was found guilty of a multi-million tax fraud that involved keeping sumptuous properties in the Caribbean, Morocco and Normandy undeclared to the taxman.
The mayor of the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret was convicted alongside his wife, Isabelle Balkany, after excruciating details of their luxury lifestyles were read out in court.
The evidence included a dry cleaner finding multiple €500 notes that Balkany had “mislaid and then forgotten about” in a suit jacket. The couple also paid for first-class air tickets and hotels in cash, the court heard.
If you think the French public would at least express outrage at this kind of behaviour, then forget it. Balkany “is a brand, like Nike, like Coca-Cola”, said David-Xavier Weiss, national secretary of Les Républicains, insisting that he “symbolised love” between his fans in Levallois who still affectionately call him the “Baron”.
Weiss added that Balkany was “a scapegoat” who was now “paying for a whole political class” that have been fiddling their financial obligations, including taxes, for decades.
There is, at least, some truth in this, but what is particularly significant about the Balkany case was that he was jailed for four years and could face, with his wife, seven more years when the verdict comes in on a related case of “money-laundering and corruption” later this year.
Police took Balkany to a cell within seconds of September’s decision, leading to his counsel complaining about an attempt to humiliate him.
Staggeringly, Madame Balkany has taken over as Mayor of Levallois in her husband’s absence – in spite of her own three-year prison sentence – as the judge did not order her immediate jailing because of ill health (although incarceration may come at a later date).
Putting politicians in prison is all-but unprecedented in France, because they almost always receive a suspended sentence or an acquittal on appeal.
This is despite all of them, particularly conservatives, traditionally being among the loudest advocates of strict law and order policies.
If the judiciary now intend to follow up the Balkany case with prison for even bigger names, then they could finally convince the French public that a court conviction is not a badge of honour, but something that highlights endemic corruption among their notoriously self-serving leaders.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion