Naming the Beast

The French judge who has worked for seven apparently frustrating years trying to prove a persistent and sizable pattern of corruption by French President Jacques Chirac has resigned in frustration and given a blistering interview to the newspaper Le Parisien. Judge Eric Halphen says that the French justice system works only on behalf of the powerful, that while he used to believe there was at least a possibility of equal justice regardless of rank or wealth in France, “I’ve had my eyes opened.”

“People who make off with large sums of money escape justice or get insignificant sentences, while the thief who steals a handbag on the subway gets six years. We have a two-speed justice system.”

The 42-year-old Judge Halphen, who began probing corruption in Paris’s City Hall in 1994, said he had been “followed, filmed, listened in on, tracked” from almost the beginning. “They stopped the wheel from turning all the time. They ceaselessly tried to hinder my investigation,” he said.


It depends on how you translate the French (I haven’t seen a full translation and mine is shaky), Halphen said that government in France is so thoroughly corrupt as to have become like a bunch of gangsters or a criminal operation. I didn’t see the word “Mafia” in the French transcript I read, but the NPR report on the resignation did use the word. A BBC report says he specifically compared cases involving French politicians to those involving the Italian Mafia.

That’s a useful and valuable insight. It might even be the beginning of wisdom.

Jacques Chirac was Mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995. During that time it was alleged that city hall creamed about $100 million off public building contracts, using most of the money to fund Chirac’s political party, the RPR. The best evidence of this was a videotape made by Jean-Claude Mery, a former RPR fundraiser who has since died, and testimony from Francois Ciolina, a former senior housing official. Both said that Chirac was the main instigator and beneficiary of the rake-off scheme.

Chirac has also been accused of using some $300,000 in suspect funds from supposedly illegal sources to finance luxury trips for himself and his family to places like New York, Japan and Mauritius.


For better or worse, the French supreme court has ruled that because of his position as president, Jacques Chirac is immune from prosecution on these and other charges. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be prosecuted after leaving office. But corrupt French presidents tend to stay in office until they die. Chirac is facing a re-election campaign against socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. The two are running neck-and-neck in the polls. Some say Halphen’s unexpected resignation, accompanied by the angry and bitter statements in the interview, was an effort to hurt Chirac politically.

If so, it might not hurt much and it might even help. The French are notoriously blasé about corruption in their government. A report last year by the non-governmental reform group Transparency International claimed that France is one of the most corrupt of developed countries, beaten only narrowly by Italy. According to the (UK) Observer, “Experts say graft effects every corner of life, from sport to politics. So endemic is it, they argue, that it simply represents the French way of doing business.” Many French people consider toleration of endemic corruption to be a sign of sophistication and refusal to be naive about the way the world really works.


Apparently Judge Halphen, though not naive, prefers not to be quite so excruciatingly sophisticated. A 1999 Business Week thumbnail on him, which claimed that reformers in Western Europe had become emboldened since the fall of the Berlin Wall, quoted Halphen as doubting he and others would clean up the system. “Politicians still need money,” he said. “They’ll just find new ways to hide it.”

But the good judge seems angrier now than he was in 1999, possibly because he has felt even more systematically the wrath of a system that doesn’t even pay much lip service to reform, let alone welcome it. He might do well to follow through a little more systematically himself with his comparison of French politicians to Italian Mafiosi.

He might even discover that the analogy applies not only to the French government, but to most modern nation-states.


It might sound argumentative to say that government is pretty much like a classic protection racket, but it’s not entirely inaccurate. The classic stereotype has guys in bulky suits, black shirts and white ties coming into stores in the neighborhood, noting there’s been a lot of vandalism and other kinds of crime lately and it sure would be a shame of Shopkeeper X were to fall victim to it. Fortunately, the Organization is here to provide protection to decent citizens from such lowlifes. For a weekly fee (or monthly, whatever, so long as it’s steady) the organization will virtually guarantee that no bad thing will happen to the upright shopkeeper.

If the shopkeeper indignantly refuses to pay the protection money, of course, something bad is guaranteed to happen, beginning with minor theft or vandalism. Then the representatives of the forces of law, order and justice will drop in to commiserate, to say what a shame that this decent citizen had such an outrage happen – but if he’s smart, he’ll make an arrangement to see that he’s protected in the future.


In fact, most governments grew from somewhat more sophisticated and elaborate versions of similar scenarios. The rulers over certain territories established their rule initially by conquest and plunder in most cases. But they maintained their power – except in a few cases of relatively small countries where constant personal surveillance and intimidation is possible – by promising protection from those others out there who might come and overrun the place and plunder the people.

From this basic premise grew taxes and an elaborate Code, complete with a strong attachment to Omerta – called law in the case of the more sophisticated political practitioners – that gradually, especially when reinforced by nationalist rhetoric building on various insecurities, built a sense of legitimacy for the providers of protection. In essence, however, the legitimacy of the modern nation-state is still built on the promise to protect the defenseless citizens from various forces of evil, foreign and domestic.

That’s one reason why wars are so useful – perhaps even essential – to the modern nation-state. If the people are left free enough to produce enough to make plundering them worthwhile – if the farmer doesn’t want to kill the egg-laying goose outright – some of them will inevitably ask inconvenient questions about government. Perhaps they will become unsophisticated enough to object to corruption in ways that even the useful democratic myth that it’s the people’s government can’t cover.

But wars almost always give current political leaders and the institutions over which they preside a little breathing room, a free ride for a while. This war not only helped the U.S. president move from a position of deepening political trouble to become a popular and almost revered figure, it gave the administration cover for any number of expansions of authority the denizens of the permanent infrastructure had had in mind for a long time.

The USA PATRIOT Act was virtually identical to legislation the Clintonistas had tried to pass several times but failed. President Bush has received few questions about his decision early last year to limit access to the Reagan administration papers, even though federal law clearly calls for all of them to be made public (with some national-security exceptions) 12 years after the end of an administration. The fact that the current president’s father was vice president then and might or might not have been ankle-deep in the Iran-Contra affair probably had nothing to do with this decision, of course. But whatever the motivation – it might be sheer arrogance, an instinctive we-know-better authoritarianism – the president would have been much more seriously criticized if the war had not intervened.


All this is not to say that I necessarily buy any of the current conspiracy-like theories about the war having been engineered by the US government or any government – at least not consciously. It’s just that the permanent government knows full well that an occasional war is beneficial to its power, and a longer-term war is more beneficial than a short, decisive war that might lead the benighted people to believe a swift return to “normal” freedom is called for.

So when an occasion presents itself, the government moves almost as if orchestrated. Everyone knows the part he or she must play and they do so with convincing and often sincere patriotic fervor.

The irony is that the occasion this time arose from an utter failure by the government to do the one essential thing it promises in return for the money and control it extracts from us – protecting the innocents from attack, plunder or criminal activity by various bad guys. The Organization in the neighborhood usually did a better job of actually furnishing protection – or at least clearly targeted vengeance on those occasions when even its exertions failed.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).