Prague, 26 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A French magistrate has placed former conservative prime minister Alain Juppe under formal investigation for alleged political corruption while he was finance chief at Paris city hall in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The legal action, one step short of an indictment, may also implicate Juppe's Gaullist party boss Jacques Chirac, who was mayor of Paris from 1977 until he was elected French President in 1995.
On French television last night (private channel TF1) Juppe, who was prime minister from 1995 to 1997, denied any wrong-doing. But he confirmed newspaper reports that suburban Paris magistrate Patrick Desmure had informed him Friday (Aug. 21) that he was under official investigation for alleged misuse of public funds in a fake-employment scheme. Desmure also placed under investigation yesterday Michel Roussin, a former minister and chief assistant to Chirac while he was Paris mayor.
In France, being placed under official investigation sets the stage for a possible indictment and trial but does not necessarily imply guilt. It could take months --if not years-- before Juppe, now mayor of the southeastern city of Bordeaux, is either formally charged or the investigation is dropped.
For the past two years, Desmure has been looking into a system under which employees on the Paris City Hall payroll were actually working for the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) party, which Chirac founded and Juppe served as secretary general. The magistrate has focused on the period from 1988 to 1993, when Juppe oversaw Paris' finances. In addition to misuse of public funds, Juppe is also being investigated for fraud and illegal personal benefits, including a low-rent luxury Paris apartment provided him by the city.
Juppe is the highest-ranking former French politician to have become embroiled in recent French political corruption scandals. Former Socialist Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and Center-Right ex-Defense Minister Francois Leotard are also under investigations by other magistrates for alleged corruption in cases unrelated to that of Juppe.
But the French justice system moves very slowly. That is one of the chief reasons why few major political figures, either on the Right or Left, have yet been convicted or lost office as a result of the on-going inquiries.
The French Fifth Republic's constitution provides Chirac with more protection than has Bill Clinton under the U.S. constitution. Clinton's conduct during --as well as before-- his presidency is now being investigated by an independent counsel, which is not possible in France. But French law does not explicitly exclude the possibility of a sitting president being indicted for alleged offenses committed before he assumed his high post, even though this has never occurred since the Fifth Republic was founded 40 years ago and is not likely to happen to Chirac.
The Paris mayor's office has been a hotbed of alleged political scandals for years. Three months ago, police detained the wife of Jean Tiberi, Chirac's former deputy and now himself mayor of Paris, for questioning about a large payment she received for writing a brief report commissioned by one of her husband's political allies.
During his TV interview last night, Juppe flatly declared that he had always obeyed the law. He said that, before regulatory laws were passed, it had been common practice among all political parties for city and business employees to work for parties as well. The first French party regulatory laws were passed in 1988 and in 1991 the regulations were amended to make them tougher.
Newspaper reports have said that Juppe is being investigated for having put as many as 200 RPR employees on the payrolls of the Paris City Hall or of complicit private businesses. Juppe headed the Gaullist party from 1988 to 1994. This Spring, a former director of personnel for Paris' City Hall publicly charged that the fake-employment scheme had cost taxpayers about $16 million annually.
In recent years French magistrates have shown unusual temerity in investigating corruption in politics, party financing and private or state-run businesses -- and the inter-relations among them. Constitutionally, French judges are far less independent of the executive branch than are their counterparts in many other Western democracies. But even though they are more exposed and have come under intense fire from political leaders on all sides of the spectrum, most magistrates have continued their corruption inquiries.
The highest former French official convicted of political corruption so far is Alain Carringnon, a former Gaullist minister and mayor of the southeastern city of Grenoble. Carringnon, found guilty of taking millions of dollars in bribes from utility companies, is now completing a three-year jail sentence and has been barred from political activity for 10 years.