The not-so-nice side of Nice
Twenty years after British author Graham Greene exposed a world of top-level vice on the Côte D'Azur, new accusations of corruption, secret networking and even paedophilia are being directed at senior judges in the French city of Nice. Hugh Schofield reports.
A magistrate who consults the criminal register to vet applicants for his masonic lodge; a businessman granted asylum in the US after claims of judicial persecution; sensitive cases buried to protect the well-to-do: evidence has emerged in the last months of systematic malpractice in Nice's judiciary.
And at a time when crime on the streets of the Mediterranean resort is exploding – a man was stabbed to death in full view of tourists on the Promenade des Anglais in July – the impression is growing of a judiciary that is discredited and dangerously divided against itself.
The man responsible for uncovering what he sees as an ingrained habit of subterfuge is chief prosecutor Eric de Montgolfier, a descendant of the inventor of the hot-air balloon and the man who brought down former minister Bernard Tapie over corruption at the Olympique de Marseille football club.
Appointed in 1999, he brought with him a reputation for toughness and an austere respect for the law that has ruffled many feathers. One of his first acts was to descend personally onto the street outside his office and write out fines for motorists jumping a red light.
On a shelf behind his desk is a miniature wooden guillotine, and a copy of Greene's "J'accuse – The Dark Side of Nice," his 1982 diatribe against the world of organised crime and its links with the city's late mayor Jacques Medecin.
"People in this city don't have the same relationship with the law that they do elsewhere," de Montgolfier told AFP. "For too many it means whatever they want it to mean. They see it through the prism of their own personal interests."
The prosecutor's initial efforts were concentrated on 23 separate enquiries that he found had been inexplicably blocked, but recently two major scandals have broken that have confirmed his suspicions of institutional laxity.
In the first, Nice's senior examining magistrate Jean-Paul Renard was accused of calling up police records in order to run checks on aspiring members of the National French Grand Lodge (GLNF) – a masonic lodge with a high penetration of business and political circles on the Mediterranean coast.
Renard, who has become the prosecutor's bitter enemy, admitted consulting the register, but he said the information was for his personal use – not to divulge to others – so the offence was a technical one.
"It was a matter of prudence. I have to make sure that people I am likely to come across in my private life are not crooks. Otherwise they will be slapping me over the back at dinner and spreading it about that I am on their side," he said.
This kind of special pleading Nice-style cut little ice with de Montgolfier, and Renard became the object of a judicial enquiry. He only narrowly missed being suspended from his job.
Renard's name also appears in the second affair, which with its allegations of a paedophile ring in the Nice judiciary is far more serious. According to de Montgolfier, the evidence of child-abuse remains speculative, but the manner in which the case was buried was "artificial and scandalous."
In his effort to win custody of his daughter, businessman Karim Kamal filed suit against his ex-wife – herself the daughter of an eminent legal figure – raising allegations of sexual abuse, and of parties in which named Nice judges were said to have taken part in sex-games in the presence of children.
It was Renard who blocked part of the procedure in 1994, while Kamal's lawyer – who had made public the allegations of a "network of child prostitution" in which judges were involved – was given a suspended prison sentence for libel and temporarily struck off.
Kamal made history in June, when he became the first French citizen to be granted political asylum in the United States. A judge in Los Angeles agreed that he had been "systematically persecuted" by a police and judiciary that "acted ... to deny him the elementary right to a fair hearing."
According to de Montgolfier, the common links running through the Nice affairs are a tolerance of dubious legal practice, and a client system in which personal favours can expect lavish reward and those with influence are "untouchable."
It may not have reached the scale of overt criminality that Greene wrote about when he turned his pen on Medecin and the mafia, but for a northern purist like de Montgolfier it bears the whiff of sultry Mediterranean sleaze.
"People said to me when I came to Nice that I would learn to understand how things are here. But that is the point. I don't understand. I'm not here to understand. I am here to have the law respected," he said.