PARIS, Feb 2 (AFP) – France was in political turmoil Monday over the conviction on corruption charges of former prime minister Alain Juppe, as three separate investigations were launched into claims that the judge who sentenced him was the target of phone taps and threats.
The speaker of the National Assembly Jean-Louis Debre announced plans for a parliamentary enquiry into allegations made Saturday by judge Catherine Pierce that her offices were broken into and her computer tampered with during the run-up to Friday’s verdict.
The enquiry came after President Jacques Chirac ordered an investigation under three top judges, and the justice ministry began proceedings to determine if criminal charges can be brought.
The row over the alleged interference drew attention away from the separate debate over the future of Juppe himself, the head of Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party who has been widely tipped as a centre-right candiate for presidential elections in 2007.
Juppe, 58, was found guilty of illegally paying party workers with funds belonging to Paris city hall and given an 18-month suspended prison term and a ten-year bar on holding public office. However he immediately announced an appeal, which put the sentences on hold.
France’s political world was awash with speculation about Juppe’s intentions, with commentators saying his resignation from the UMP could open up a period of fierce in-fighting, just seven weeks before important regional elections.
Juppe, who is also mayor of the southwestern city of Bordeaux and a member of the National Assembly, confirmed that he would announce his decision Tuesday.
“I have had a good think. I respect the court. Tomorrow probably on television I shall tell the French what I have decided. Till then I hope you will understand that I am keeping it to myself,” he told supporters who gathered to wish him well at the Bordeaux city hall.
Prompting speculation that he is urging Juppe to stick it out in the hope of quashing the verdict on appeal, Chirac told journalists in Marseille that his protege was a “political figure of exceptional quality, competence, humanity and honesty. France needs men of his quality.”
Chirac’s left-wing opponents said that he himself had been indirectly damaged by the Juppe verdict, because during the period when the illegal payments were being made – the late 1980s and early 1990s – the president was the mayor of Paris and Juppe his financial director.
“Given what the judge said there can be no doubt at all that when Jacques Chirac has completed his term in office, at some time or other – by some manner or another – he will face judicial proceedings,” said Socialist leader Francois Hollande. Chirac is currently protected by presidential immunity.
Rumours were circulating about who could have ordered the alleged phone taps at judge Pierce’s offices in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre, with memories reawakened of another magistrate – Eric Halphen – who complained of harassment while looking into corruption at Chirac’s party.
In an interview with Le Parisien newspaper, Pierce said, “Our offices … received regular ‘visits’ over these last months … Our work computers were gone through. We also think our telephones – including our personal ones – were tapped.
“We don’t know who was behind all this. We simply came to the conclusion that a lot of people wanted to know what would be our decision,” she said.
The state prosecutor in Nanterre said that two preliminary police investigations were already set up earlier this month. The first followed the receipt of a threatening letter in which the author said that if Juppe was not barred from office he would face justice “by force if necessary.”
The second investigation was into an incident in which a workman was found dismantling the ceiling in Pierce’s office. The man told police he was trying to make his way into the next-door office, whose lock had broken.
Subject: France news