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Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2002

French imitations of a banana republic

LONDON -- Is corruption a Third World disorder? Not if the French are any guide.

"France is not a banana republic," insisted former Prime Minister Raymond Barre last year, as the financial scandals surrounding President Jacques Chirac grew ever more damning. "You must not believe that all French politics or that all French politicians are corrupt." But most French people believe exactly that.

Judge Eric Halphen, who spent seven years investigating the French president's alleged crimes, only to have France's highest court rule last October that "the president of the republic cannot be questioned as a witness . . . or charged with any infraction," has come to the same conclusion.

Halphen finally quit his job as investigating magistrate two weeks ago. Claiming that he had been bugged and followed, subjected to threats and a sting operation, and obstructed at every turn, he said that in France "political investigations are just like mafia investigations. No one speaks. ... People who embezzle huge sums escape all judgment . . . but the man who steals a handbag on the metro is not so lucky. He gets six months."

To be fair, former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was sentenced to six months jail last June for receiving kickbacks through his former mistress Christine Deviers-Joncour, the self-described "whore of the republic," that were worth up to $4 million. They don't all get away. But it is still largely true that in France "the law is for little people," not for the elite. And the "little people," remarkably, generally go along with it.

That is certainly the case in Italy, where Prime Minister Enrico Berlusconi has led a counteroffensive against the attempted cleanup of Italian politics by crusading magistrates in the latter half of the 1990s. The "mani puliti" (clean hands) investigators actually broke the astoundingly corrupt Christian Democratic party, which had dominated Italian politics for 40 years, but Berlusconi, who owns or strongly influences all six of Italy's national television channels, has now persuaded many Italians that it was all just a leftwing plot.

Berlusconi deals with the various bribery charges he faces himself by endless delaying actions -- one case has already expired because it passed the legal deadline before getting to court -- or by simply changing the law. For example, there is now a proposal to downgrade false accounting (a charge that, coincidentally, his own Mediaset corporation faces) from a felony to a noncriminal misdemeanor. Italians still vote for him.

Nor is it just some Latin thing. In 2000 Germany watched former Chancellor Helmut Kohl feign memory loss whenever he was asked about illegal campaign contributions to his Christian Democratic party. (He admitted to receiving over $900,000 in 1993-98 alone, but investigators suspected far larger sums.) And Ireland recently went through a two-year drama as a special tribunal examined how Charlie Haughey, four times prime minister, had accumulated a fortune more than a hundred times greater than his highest annual salary.

How does this compare with poor countries in the developing world? It's not as bad as African kleptocracies like Congo under Mobutu or Nigeria under Abacha, where the rulers stole literally billions of dollars. It doesn't even rank with Peru, where Vladimiro Montesinos, for 10 years the closet adviser to disgraced ex-President Alberto Fujimori, had 2,400 videotapes showing the country's political and business elite accepting bribes.

But even poor democracies with free media like India (where former prime minister Narasimha Rao got a three-year jail sentence for bribery in 2000) sometimes get it right. Corruption is everywhere, but so is retribution. India's defense minister, George Fernandes, had to leave the Cabinet last year after an upstart Web site called tehelka.com sent out journalists disguised as representatives of a fictitious British company seeking an arms contract, and secretly filmed Indian generals, politicians and senior officials accepting large sums of cash from them.

Or take the Philippines, whose people elected a charming scoundrel, Joseph Estrada, to the presidency -- and then overthrew him last year when his influence-peddling and bribe-taking got too public and too embarrassing. Crime, but also punishment -- a great deal more punishment than France's Chirac expects to receive.

The most recent and in some ways the worst of the many scandals that dog Chirac is the revelation that he paid for $350,000 worth of air travel in 1993-95, including private trips to places like New York (by Concorde), Mauritius and Japan for himself, his family, and friends, with brown envelopes stuffed with 500-franc notes delivered to the travel agency by his chauffeur.

The assumption is that this money is part of the kickbacks he received on almost all city construction projects while he was mayor of Paris, but if he is re-elected president this year it will be another five years before anybody can even question him about it. And he probably will win: French voters don't seem upset about it.

On an index devised by the anticorruption crusaders at Transparency International, the cleanest countries are predictably in northern Europe, from Finland at 9.9 to Britain at 8.3, while the very lowest scores are registered by big, poor countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nigeria. But France gets only 6.7. (The United States gets 7.6).

Many people think there's a simple equation: rich countries are honest, poor ones are corrupt. But it's much more complicated than that. Some cultures secretly despise rip-off artists even when they become the rich and the powerful, as they so often do. Other cultures, however, secretly admire them -- and let them get away with it.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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