The deportation of fugitive French businessman Alfred Sirven from the Philippines throws a twist into the trial of Mr. Roland Dumas, the former French foreign minister and head of the Constitutional Court. Mr. Sirven is alleged to be the missing link in the scheme to use funds from Elf-Aquitaine, the former state oil company, to buy influence. The taint may even reach French President Jacques Chirac. By some accounts, the entire French political order is on trial.
While the French investigation is perhaps the most engrossing political scandal of the moment, it is not the only affair making headlines. Mr. Sirven has questions to answer about channeling funds to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In Japan, the Diet is occupied with the attempts of KSD, a mutual aid society, to buy influence with leading politicians. Money politics, it seems, is a constant the world over.
The Dumas trial is a colorful affair. He is charged with receiving funds and gifts from Elf in exchange for his approval of the sale of six naval frigates to Taiwan. Although Mr. Dumas has denied the charges, he did approve the sale in 1991, even though he had previously maintained that the sale would damage relations with China.
Elf hired his mistress, Ms. Christine Deviers-Joncour, whose autobiography is entitled “The Whore of the Republic,” to change his mind. She admits receiving the equivalent of 66 million francs ($9.4 million) illegally from Elf to lobby Mr. Dumas. They met in her luxury apartment, paid for by Elf.
Mr. Sirven, as the No. 2 man at Elf, was allegedly responsible for the slush fund worth hundreds of millions of dollars that was used to buy influence around the world. He has boasted that he knew enough about corruption “to bring down the French republic 20 times over.”
And apparently not just in France. Mr. Sirven is also wanted for questioning in Germany about his role in the purchase of the East German company Leuna, which was sold to Elf in 1992. That sale was reportedly approved by former French President Francois Mitterrand as a way to help his friend Mr. Kohl and to funnel money to his party, the Christian Democratic Union, for elections.
The Dumas trial is only the most spectacular of the investigations that have riveted the French public. Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe could be tried for his alleged involvement in a scheme to help support Mr. Chirac’s Rally for the Republic party. Former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Paris’s Mayor Jean Tiberi and a number of other officials are being tried for graft. The governor of the Bank of France, Mr. Jean-Claude Trichet, and the former head of the International Monetary Fund, Mr. Jacques de Larosiere, are being investigated for their roles in the collapse of Credit Lyonnais, a state-owned bank. And last month, Mr. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of the former prime minister, was granted bail in a case involving illegal arms sales to Angola.
Some of the cases involve illegal dealings for personal gain; some, however, do not. Mr. Chirac is accused of being involved in a scheme when he was mayor of Paris that used kickbacks to bankroll his party. Mr. Kohl has denied any involvement in kickbacks and has maintained that any financial wrongdoing was done to support his party. In Japan, Mr. Takao Koyama, the former House of Councilors member arrested last month on charges of accepting bribes from KSD, has said that he took the money in order to boost the electoral prospects of fellow lawmakers.
These arguments imply, at the very least, that some politicians believe that funding scandals differ from garden-variety money-in-the-pocket payoffs. The logic seems to be that since the money does not benefit them personally, that it is used to support their party, the usual prohibitions do not apply.
This is laughable. Even if the money is not used by the politician himself, passing it around confers status. Seniority in Japan’s political factions is contingent precisely on this arrangement. And with seniority comes prestige, authority and power. To say that a politician does not profit personally from such action is disingenuous — at best. Indeed, real power — whether in Japan, France, Germany, the United States, or anywhere else — is the product of status within the party, and that comes from sharing the wealth. Individual riches do not go very far.
While we may be transfixed by the spectacle of powerful men in the dock for breaking the law, the real scandal is not the illegal behavior but that which is perfectly legal. Even legitimately obtained funds corrode politics around the world; they erode public confidence and breed cynicism.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.