Who broke the judge?

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Eric Halphen is the name of the French investigating magistrate who embarassed president Jacques Chirac by calling him for questioning over the alleged corruption scam at Paris city hall when Chirac was mayor of the capital.

Judge Halphen, like other magistrates who took on the mighty in France, is no more — or rather, is no longer practising his profession.


This year he published his own account of the uncovering of the scandal known as that of "Les HLMs de Paris". Sept ans de solitude (Seven years of solitude), published by Denoël, is a deeply disturbing read, and strongly recommended to anyone interested in understanding just why France has become so notorious in Europe for its institutionalised corruption.

Halphen, although he does not say so clearly, took leave of his job after failing to take his case to what he thought was its ultimate conclusion: the indictment of Chirac, who refused to be interrogatedby Halphen, on the legally justified basis that a president, while in office, cannot be questioned in such an investigation.

The magistrate then soon failed in his next enterprise — that of getting elected in this year's legislative elections as a representative of the maverick centrist politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement. Along with his sheepish physical appearance, Halphen cuts a somewhat sad figure, a man who one realises, by reading his book, has been broken somewhere inside by his harrowing experiences probing into one of France's biggest corruption scandals.

The facts which he outlines almost begger belief.

Firstly, in the extent of the already widely-reported scam which he was charged with investigating; it seems that hardly a single public building contract in and around Paris escaped the rule that construction companies were successful only if they paid a kick-back to Chirac's RPR party henchmen. The sums were huge, and transited around the world in an elaborate network of secret bank accounts, often in 'fiscal paradises' like Litchenstein, Switzerland or the Isle of Man.

Just how much the brazen system financially benefited political funds or individuals is not clear, but the sums involved were huge.

Secondly, in the account of the overt personal intimidation and professional sabotage suffered by Halphen, which is so outrageous that even a fiction writer might not have dared such a plot was, in fact, possible. The intimidation included disguised threats to him and his family, phone taps, secretly taken pictures of his love life, frightening notes left under the windscreen wipers of his car.

For much of the time during his seven-year investigation the RPR party was in government, and Halphen describes political manouevering of police and prosecution officials to thwart his activities.

Halphen is convinced, as are most newspaper readers, that financial corruption scams are common to all parties, and he is as scathing about the attitude of Socialist ministers as he is about those of the right. He suggests that despite the laws passed in recent years to clean up the illegal practices of party funding, little or nothing has changed and — more sadly — ever will.

It is here that Halphen, with whom one can only sympathise until then, strays off the track. Reading between the lines, one is struck by the dilemna he feels after having had his ideals in French justice shattered (he was one of the longest-serving French examining magistrates), and yet he is unable to denounce the fundamental flaws in the system which allowed this to happen.

He is almost smug in his assertion that he is about to surprise his reader by claiming that he wishes no radical reform of the French justice machine, and he makes this comment after some 200 pages of detailed description of a bankrupt and corrupt beaurocracy. For, if he was to suggest otherwise, the role of the examining magistrate comes under question.

Rather, Halphen contents himself to outline the inherent overwork and ultimate impotence of the magistrates, who in France lead all serious criminal investigations. There is, he appears to admit, no cure in sight to prevent the abominable story he recounts happening again.

The many, many disturbing issues he raises should be the subject of urgent reform, of public outrage and political shame. In many countries, his book would create a scandal and a political crisis. Less clear is whether it's France, or Halphen, who lost the plot.

21 November 2002

(This article was written by Graham Tearse, former editor of Expatica France).

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