(Pictured: “Bilderbergers” building bridges.)
In the infamous column in which French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy cried his outrage at the public humiliation inflicted to Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the aftermath of his arrest, one sentence described particularly well the unspoken but unshakeable consensus governing politicians and the law in France. Levy expressed his indignation against: “The American judge who by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other.”
The idea that Strauss-Kahn should not be treated as “a subject of justice like any other” remained a leitmotiv through the flood of media reactions to his arrest in France. Because he had more to lose than “a vulgar delinquent” would have in a similar case, the argument went, because of his years of service to the world as head of the IMF and because of his prestige as future presidential candidate, he should be given special treatment. His disgrace should be hidden from public view; he should be spared the humiliation and disagreement of handcuffs, detention, and monitoring; and most importantly he should be given the benefit of the doubt.
This is nothing new in under the sun in French Politics. During his twelve years as President, Jacques Chirac was cited in nine different corruption cases while shielded both by presidential immunity and a merciful public opinion. One of his former Prime Ministers, Alain Juppé, was convicted of corruption in 2004, only to be recently welcomed back into Sarkozy’s government in the key spot of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Other prominent members of the French government have been implicated in scandals in the past few years, from Minister of Budget Eric Woerth’s shady dealings with L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt to former Minister of Interior Brice Hortefeux’s conviction for racial slander. While these cases certainly sparked media scandals, Sarkozy maintained his public support to the indicted ministers — perpetuating the tradition of that political figures benefiting from impunity, proportionally to their rank. The message is clear: you might have to lay low for a couple of years after the scandal but you will be protected, and eventually come back safely to the front rows of power.
Another such disreputable figure is Bernard Tapie, a Berlusconi-esque figure who has dabbled in murky-yet-profitable business ventures, show business, politics and soccer club management. He last hogged newspaper headlines in 2008, for receiving 403 million Euros of public funds in compensation for having been cheated fifteen years earlier by the French Bank Credit Lyonnais in the sale of the firm Adidas, which he headed at the time. In a time of economic downturn, public opinion was outraged that Tapie would received such a colossal sum, coming straight from their tax-Euros. But most importantly, the procedure through which the settlement was made was shady: three arbiters were picked to review the case and come to a decision behind closed doors a process contested at the time by several legal commentators, since public funds were involved.
Most critical to the affair is who took these questionable decisions and personally picked the arbiters: France’s Minister of Economy and Finances, and now leading candidate to take Strauss-Kahn’s spot as head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde. Lagarde could face prosecution for “abuse of authority” in this case, as the Cour de Justice de la Republique (CJR), in charge of judging crimes and offenses perpetrated by Ministers in office, is evaluating the case and deliberating on the need for further investigation. More severe than the dubious process chosen to settle the case is the fact, revealed by french independent news website Mediapart (), that Lagarde knew of a relationship between one of the arbiters and Tapie’s attorney and chose not to interrupt the process or appeal its outcome.
In the mainstream media’s coverage of Lagarde’s candidacy, the case is usually referred to as a detail, almost a footnote. Lagarde herself dismisses these accusations as innocuous. “I am perfectly confident and serene regarding this subject and this has absolutely no bearing on my candidacy” she declared on June 10th, after her audience was pushed back to July. Once again, just as Strauss-Kahn’s widely known compulsion toward sexual harassment never impeded his political ascendency, we are faced with an example in which a political leader is not held to the rule of law because of a “special treatment” granted by her position on the national and now global political chessboard. There is serious evidence that Christine Lagarde, in the cesspool of corruption that is France’s political landscape turned a blind eye on another instance of cronyism. Should it be disregarded as Strauss-Kahn’s history of sexual “misconduct” was four years ago?
Jeanne Kay is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.