Hardly a week passes nowadays without a new political scandal in France. The air is charged with accusation. There are so many smears, in fact, that it’s hard for all of them to stick.
The sound and fury is actually the unofficial opening of the campaign for next spring’s presidential election. The most serious scandal--or, as the French prefer to call it, affaire-- has echoes of the U.S. Iran-Contra furor because it involves illegal sale of arms to Iran.
By all logic, that affair should have damaged the political standing of President Francois Mitterrand. But Mitterrand, a Socialist, seems to have wriggled out of the affair somewhat easily, leaving behind a trap for his conservative arch-rival, Premier Jacques Chirac, who in turn seems to have slipped the trap.
According to all polls, Mitterrand could win reelection easily as president, if he decides to run.
Many French journalists believe that voters here, although turned off by all the affaires and accusations, are still unlikely to change their minds about their probable choice in the first round of presidential voting next April 24.
If they do change their minds, in the view of most analysts, former Premier Raymond Barre will probably benefit. Barre is a center-right economist with only loose ties to a conservative party, the Union for French Democracy, and he sometimes appears to be above politics.
Aside from the sale of arms to Iran, the political scandals in France involve embezzlement of funds from a development aid agency; issuance of a false passport to a fleeing fugitive in exchange for dirt on the Socialists; the ties of the minister of justice to a renowned jeweler accused of fraud; flagrant favoritism by a communications commission member in granting a radio license; the indictment of a police officer close to the president on charges of suborning witnesses, and the hiding of political contributions behind phony invoices.
Anyone keeping a scorecard, as some French newsmagazines do, finds that three of the scandals are embarrassing to the conservative government of Chirac while four are embarrassing to Mitterrand and the Socialists.
The timing of some revelations are suspicious, making them look like an orchestration by lieutenants of Chirac anxious to dampen Mitterrand’s popularity at the start of the campaign or even persuade him to retire before the mud-slinging gets worse. The minister of defense kept a report on the arms sales to Iran secret for 16 months, for example, before it was leaked to the press a few weeks ago.
According to the now declassified report, a French munitions firm, Luchaire, sold arms to Iran between 1982 and 1986 and, despite a government ban on such sales, had the acquiescence of then-Socialist governments under Premiers Pierre Mauroy and Laurent Fabius. Mitterrand, the report said, knew about the sales but did nothing.
The French government, a major supplier of arms to Iraq, may have allowed sales to Iran for economic and political gain. The report repeated rumors that Luchaire paid a commission that eventually found its way into the Socialist Party treasury.
‘Rumors’ of the Sales
Mitterrand responded to the arms sales accusations in a 90-minute radio interview Nov. 16, and he acknowledged that the director of the French intelligence agency had told him in 1984 about “rumors” of the sales. The president said he asked the director to relay the information to the minister of defense and had assumed, when he heard nothing more, that the sales had stopped.
“The constitution has not conferred on me the duty to verify authorizations for the export of war materials,” he said.
As for money going to the Socialist Party, he asserted, “I would put my hand in the fire” to prove the accusation untrue.
Mitterrand’s defense did not dispel all doubts or criticism. Le Monde, France’s most influential newspaper, reported that he sounded “ill at ease in his explanations, sometimes clumsy.”
“In several rounds,” the newspaper went on, “he hesitated about dates and even had to correct himself.”
But the president soon took the offensive.
Special Session Proposed
He suddenly proposed a special session of the National Assembly in January to pass a law providing government financing for the campaigns of political parties, a move that would get at the heart of what seems to be troubling the French people these days.
“It is necessary to be done with this mud,” he said.
The proposal dominated newspaper headlines and television news programs for several days, obscuring the issue of the arms sales. Many analysts perceived the proposal as a trap for Chirac, and the premier reportedly was furious at the president.
Chirac’s own Gaullist party, the Rally for the Republic, has never wanted government financing because it has always collected far more contributions from wealthy backers than any other party. But the Union for the French Democracy, which came to power as a partner to Chirac after the parliamentary elections of 1986, has long advocated government financing of election campaigns. In fact, former Premier Barre made a plea for such a law only a few days before Mitterrand.
It is a popular issue because some means of financing electoral campaigns here look more and more unsavory. Unable to finance themselves solely on dues and open contributions, French political parties, especially those in power, have resorted--according to the news magazine Le Point--to unaccountable government funds in the premier’s office, kickbacks and gifts and cut-rate services from government contractors, government vehicles and personnel, government advertising budgets, bank overdrafts and other questionable sources.
Chirac, caught between rejecting a popular idea and letting Mitterrand seize the initiative, decided that it would be best to look as if he were taking the lead himself. He summoned the leaders of all parties to reach a consensus on an electoral financing law, but there presumably will be no special session until they all agree on a law. Chirac’s delaying maneuver has been hailed in the French press as a deft way of climbing out of the trap.
Politics is a very highly regarded profession in France, but the succession of scandals has lessened its esteem. A recent poll in the news magazine Nouvel Observateur reported that 58% of the French still look on politics as an honorable calling, while 36% do not. Two years ago, the corresponding figures were 65% favorable, 26% unfavorable.
The polls indicate that the scandals have not lessened Mitterrand’s chances so far for reelection. Some analysts believe that any attempt to tar Mitterrand might backfire because the office of president is regarded with such reverence in France.
After the first round of voting next April, the two candidates who emerge as leaders then campaign for a second and final round of elections two weeks later. According to the polls, Mitterrand, in a second round, would defeat Chirac by 6 to 16 percentage points or Barre by 4 to 6 percentage points.