Eva Joly is probably not a household name outside France or her native country of Norway. Now 73 years old, a second-term MEP and former candidate for Europe Ecologie-les Verts in the 2012 presidential elections - she polled just over 2% - she came to France at the age of 20 as an au-pair girl, studied law at night school and eventually became an examining magistrate, specialised in financial affairs. In this capacity she investigated what came to be known as the Elf financial scandal of the 1990s, a saga of huge illicit payments from a French oil company (since taken over by TOTAL) to politicians and senior officials. She tells the bruising story in a book that was published in France in 2003, “Est-ce dans ce monde-là que nous voulons vivre?” (Edtions les Arènes, 2003) that later appeared in an English translation, “Justice under siege” (Arcadia books 2006).
After a long and painstaking investigation, senior figures including Loïk le Floch Prigent, the boss of Elf at the time of the scandal and of SNCF at the time of the investigation and Roland Dumas, a well-known lawyer, minister and close friend of François Mitterand were charged for various offences. Roland Dumas was convicted and sentenced to fines and a prison sentence, later overturned on appeal.
I looked up the whole story again this morning as news broke of yet more investigations into François Fillon’s financial affairs and the sudden resignation yesterday of the Minister of the Interior, Bruno Le Roux, a close political ally of François Hollande, after revelations that he had employed his teenage daughters as parliamentary assistants! While there is very clearly little in common between the Elf affair of the 1990s and the comparatively minor (and legal) sins of which François Fillon and Bruno Le Roux stand accused, both cases are an interesting illustration of how far attitudes have changed in France over the past 25 years.
What is particularly striking in Eva Joly’s book is not so much the reality that she uncovered but the spiteful and violent reactions of the people she was investigating. One senior politician pointedly turned his back on her and read a book while she was trying to question him in her office. Roland Dumas called her, among other things, “crazy”. It was as if these senior member of the establishment, so accustomed to the corrupt ways of the time, assumed that they were simply above the law and were outraged at being publicly exposed and questioned by a punctilious and “foreign” magistrate applying her Nordic ways to such upstanding officials of a country like France!
Nevertheless, scandal after scandal, both legal and moral standards have been tightening up, under pressure from public opinion and the legislator. François Hollande himself took one of the most recent initiatives, after a scandal in which a former minister was convicted only last year of tax evasion and money laundering. He set up a special public prosecution unit to which the dodgy financial affairs of politicians and senior official can be referred. It is this body that is investigating Fillon and now Le Roux. Since 2013, MPs are also required to declare all their income from non-parliamentary sources to another body, the "High Authority for Transparency in Public Life” (HATVP), seen as a safeguard against possible conflicts of interest.
The conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that France is indeed moving slowly towards more Nordic standards of integrity in public life. Radio and TV stations regularly report on cases like that of the Swedish minister who was forced to resign for buying nappies with her government credit card or the recent opening of the Norwegian tax administration’s website to any citizen who wishes to consult it. Whether such levels of transparency will ever be attained in France is a matter of doubt. From her seat in the European Parliament however, Eva Joly must take some comfort from the realisation that the underlying culture in France has changed considerably since she carried out her investigations and that her successors in the new public prosecutor’s unit not only enjoy the backing of public opinion and the state but are also respected - and feared - rather than insulted.