His Father's Son

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His qualifications for the job were meager in the extreme: a few years covering Africa for Agence-France Presse. But that didn't stop President François Mitterrand from appointing the young man as his chief adviser on African affairs in 1986. For the nominee had one credential that really counted: he was the President's son. For the next seven years, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand crisscrossed Africa, hobnobbing with chieftains and businessmen and passing on messages from the President — hence his nickname, "Papa-m'a-dit" (Daddy told me). He also built up an enviable network of contacts that served him well when he left the Elysee Palace in 1992 to become a private consultant.

Today Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, 54, is under investigation for illegal arms trading and influence peddling. French justice officials have established that in 1997 and 1998 his Swiss bank account received payments totaling $1.8 million from a company called Brenco Trading International. Investigators believe this was a commission for introducing Brenco president Pierre Falcone — also under investigation — to Angolan authorities and thus facilitating the sale to Luanda of more than $600 million-worth of ex-Soviet bloc arms to be used in Angola's 25-year-old civil war. Mitterrand admits receiving the payments but says he merely advised Falcone on financial matters and knew nothing about arms sales.

Jailed Dec. 21, Mitterrand was freed last week on $715,000 bail. In interviews following his release, he claimed the investigating judge was motivated by "hatred" just because of his illustrious surname. Supporters charge the judge with abusing preventive detention and violating Mitterrand's right to be presumed innocent. All this, of course, skirts what should be the central point of this debate: the breathtaking bankruptcy of public ethics in France.

The whole political class — left and right — is currently rocked by investigations into alleged party financing irregularities, bribery, influence peddling and tax evasion. On the right, magistrates are looking into kickbacks on municipal contracts awarded when Gaullist President Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris. Former Gaullist Interior Minister Charles Pasqua has been questioned about suspected financial links to arms dealer Falcone. On the left, Socialist former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas goes on trial this month for allegedly arranging a sinecure for his mistress with a state-owned oil company and accepting part of the exorbitant commissions she received. Ex-Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also a Socialist, faces trial this year for allegedly forging documents related to an $85,000 payment he received from a student health insurance fund.

All of this pales in comparison to the shenanigans that went on during the Mitterrand era, a historical low point for public probity in France. No one has ever proved that the late President lined his own pockets, but his entire career was built on a cynicism that took him from early success as a collaborationist Vichy official to an opportunistic conversion to the Resistance and, finally, his takeover of the French Socialist movement as a stepping-stone to power.

Once elected in 1981, Mitterrand surrounded himself with cronies whose ethical standards were minimal. Fascinated by the roguish charm of self-made businessman Bernard Tapie, Mitterrand named him Minister of Urban Affairs in 1992, only to see him embroiled in judicial probes that eventually sent him to prison for rigging a soccer match and found him guilty of tax evasion. The President's best friend and financial backer, Pierre-Patrice Pelat, would likely have been indicted in a major insider trading scandal had he not died in 1989. Pelat also made an undeclared loan to Mitterrand's Prime Minister, Pierre Beregovoy, who committed suicide in 1993 after the deal was made public. François de Grossouvre, who among other things arranged to house and protect Mitterrand's mistress and their daughter at public expense, blew his brains out in his Elysee office after losing favor with the President. In this sulfurous atmosphere, is it any wonder Jean-Christophe Mitterrand might see nothing wrong with turning contacts he made on the public payroll into personal gain? Or that he admittedly didn't bother to report his Swiss-held earnings to French tax authorities?

Clearly, no one should assume Mitterrand committed a crime unless he is found guilty in court. But the fact that former public officials like him, Dumas and Strauss-Kahn, are passing before the judges is a sign of how far France has come. For too long, people in high places assumed they were untouchable. Yet as French justice becomes increasingly independent of political control, the old rules are changing. That's bad news for the Old Guard — but good news for France.