PARIS, July 10 (Reuters) – The uproar over a political funding scandal has once again cast the spotlight on France’s justice system, which critics say risks losing its independence under reforms planned by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy’s overhaul would lead to the scrapping of independent examining magistrates, or “juges d’instruction”, a French peculiarity that dates back to Napoleonic times.
The government has in recent years been appointing more and more public prosecutors to big cases instead of independent magistrates, who used to handle most investigations of major significance, and in theory have wider powers.
The magistrates themselves argue that, because the prosecutors answer to the Justice Ministry, the system could be exposed to political influence.
The role of Philippe Courroye, the prosecutor leading an investigation into whether L’Oreal (OREP.PA) heiress Liliane Bettencourt and her late husband made illegal donations to Sarkozy’s election campaign, is a case in point.
Courroye earned a reputation as a fighter for judicial independence in the 1990s after securing the conviction of two right-wing mayors for corruption.
He also led an investigation into arms sales to Angola that ended in the conviction of the eldest son of late Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, Jean-Christophe.
But Courroye’s decisions since his appointment to his current post have sparked concern, and two magistrates’ unions this week publicly demanded that he step down.
The unions are asking for Courroye to be replaced by an independent examining magistrate in the Bettencourt case, in which a butler made secret recordings of conversations between the heiress and her financial and legal advisers.
The recordings suggest that Courroye, a friend of Sarkozy’s, informed the president’s office weeks in advance of a decision he planned to take on the investigation. Sarkozy has vehemently denied that his party received any illegal funding as alleged.
LEAKS AND WHISPERS
French investigations are also often heavily leaked. Evidence documents, minutes of police questioning and secret tape recordings can surface with astonishing speed, and with no penalty from court or libel restraints.
Sarkozy has said that a reform of the legal system is needed to avoid a repeat of the Outreau scandal in 2000, in which over a dozen people were wrongfully imprisoned after a flawed investigation by a young and inexperienced magistrate.
The case was widely viewed as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in France since the end of World War Two.
But lawyers, judges and court officials have taken to the streets in their thousands to protest against the reform.
They argue that the Outreau case provides convenient cover for the government to get rid of magistrates who have a history of uncovering embarrassing cases of political corruption.
Examining magistrates were also behind a series of sensitive examinations that dogged Mitterrand and his right-wing successor, Jacques Chirac, for years.
Independent magistrates were also behind criminal cases against major French firms and their senior executives, including a huge 1990s scandal centred on the state-owned oil company Elf and its dealings in Africa. (Reporting by Sophie Taylor; Editing by Kevin Liffey)