It is a case of déjà vu for millions of French people: forty-seven politicians and other officials are on trial this week over a vast kickback scheme. For several years in the early 1990s, construction companies are said to have paid 90 million euros ($116 million) in bribes, swelling the coffers of political parties. Their reward: contracts to build and maintain secondary schools in the Paris area.
And yet again, the trials involve President Chirac when he served as mayor of Paris and his allies, politicians from the entire spectrum. Mr Chirac invoked presidential immunity to escape investigation over other affairs, but his allies didn't have that option.
"It was very organized," said Nicolas Lecaussin of the IFRAP in Paris – a private think tank that aims to hold France’s public administration to account.
Prosecutions on the rise
Prosecutions for corruption have been on the rise in France since the 1980s, particularly involving the prominent. It’s thought to be one reason why French people hold their politicians in such low esteem.
"What I think will come out of this, is the coming out into the open of a whole system of behaviour that should no longer have a place in a democracy," said attorney Jean-Yves Dupeux, who is helping the prosecution.
Lecaussin says that his organization is unique in Europe and the US and that this explains much.
"Nobody knows where the money goes, and even the politicians recognize this," he said. "You can ask a deputy at the National Assembly and he will say that he votes for the budget but doesn't know where the money goes. It is incredible and it is why there is corruption in France."
Hit film reflects era
A recent box office hit called "Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars" tells the story of the late President Mitterand’s last few months before his death in 1995. It’s also a reminder of an era which is largely blamed for creating a system in which corruption became almost institutionalized.
In the fifteen years from the start of Francois Mitterand’s presidency, corruption convictions among elected officials increased six-fold. IFRAP has lists of those who have been brought to justice: business executives, former government ministers, even the head of a gastronomy association who spent millions of euros of public money lunching his way round Europe. Last year, one case in particular was very enlightening.
Alain Juppe (photo) – former prime minister, close friend and ally of the president - was convicted of being part of an illegal party funding scam. But far from shunning him, political colleagues applauded when he appeared back in parliament. President Chirac could hardly have been more glowing in his praise.
"He’s a politician of exceptional quality – competent, humane and honest," said Chirac. "And France needs men of his quality."
The problem is that most French people seem to think the exact opposite – about Mr Juppe and politicians generally.
Lecaussin of IFRAP believes corruption is a contributing factor.Just last week, investigators abandoned their inquiry into Mr Chirac’s family holidays, allegedly paid for using bundles of cash of uncertain origin. To outsiders, it suggests France has some way to go in taking its scandals seriously.