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Is American political corruption contagious?

Those who think there are glints of corruption in American politics should refer to the recent history of France. Only a year ago, Roland Dumas was president of France’s Constitutional Council, the highest court in the land, and for years he was late President Francois Mitterand’s foreign minister. Now, at the age of 78, in a trial that began January 22, he stands accused of taking bribes and misusing public funds and faces up to five years in prison, not to mention the disgrace.

We also are witnessing an entertaining courtroom drama, as one of Mr. Dumas’ co-defendants is his former mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, author of the sensationally titled “Whore of the Republic,” which describes her role from 1989 to 1993 as a lobbyist for Elf, the state oil company. The prosecution says her job was arranged by Roland Dumas, who had already assisted in installing another defendant, Loik Le Floch-Prigent, as Elf’s chief executive. Ms. Deviers-Joncour admits receiving over $9 million from Elf and enjoying both a limitless expense account and a luxury apartment. She, in turn, allowed Mr. Dumas use of the apartment and gave him a pair of $2000 Italian shoes and a set of ancient Greek sculptures.

The drama has its troubling aspects. Was a state-owned company — Elf — really urging an employee to lobby her lover, a government minister? The conventional explanation, drawn in large part from Ms Deviers-Joncour’s writings on the subject is that Elf was acting on behalf of another French state-owned company, Thomson-CSF, which wanted Roland Dumas’s backing for the sale of six frigates to Taiwan. Dumas, who earlier had been against the sale for fear of offending China, says it was Mitterand himself who approved the sale. The ex-minister’s lawyers have sought permission to produce government documents as proof. The court has refused, saying the frigate affair had no direct bearing on the case. The government, doubtless fearing its case might be blunted by security considerations, has avoided any reference to the ships.

Just what the case amounts to has yet to be seen. Certainly Mr. Dumas’ income far exceeded his salary. He got help early on in the trial from Ms. Deviers-Joncour. In March 1999, having been rejected by Mr. Dumas, she informed on him to government investigators. But within days, she admitted she had no proof that her lover had arranged her job at Elf — a job she described as “good for Elf and good for France” (not to mention herself). An additional blow for the prosecution is the absence of one of the seven persons accused: Alfred Sirven, alleged to have been the manager of an immense Elf slush fund, who has since disappeared in the Philippines.

The investigating magistrates will at least show up the arrogant corruption of the Mitterand era. The late president most notoriously used Elf money to help finance the re-election, in 1994, of Germany’s chancellor, his friend Helmut Kohl. But that was just the tip of the sales of influence, kickbacks, front companies and bogus “commissions” built up under his regime.

Mitterand’s eldest son, Jean-Christophe, is paying a bit of the price. When he was formally put under investigation in December on suspicion of profiteering from arms trafficking in Angola and money laundering, he was abruptly thrown into prison for three weeks pending payment of over $800,000 in bail. The Mitterands feel this all smacks of vengeance. Jean-Christophe said the magistrate who imposed the penalty, “sweated with hate” for him and his mother, the late president’s widow, and called the huge bail “ransom.”

The underlying question is where it will all end. Magistrates are already investigating how political parties in France benefited in the 1980s and early 1990s from kickbacks from public-works contractors. This was the extended period when Jacques Chirac, now president, was mayor of Paris. But he can relax, at least for the time being, as the Constitutional Council, with Mr. Dumas at its head, ruled in 1999 that an incumbent president has immunity not only from prosecution but from questioning.