Sunday, February 27, 2005

The other Entente Cordiale

Despite the distractions of a big weekend of European sport, we won't flag on one of our mandates to find an Irish angle to any international news story. Consider therefore the scandal in France that led to resignation of the finance minister Hervé Gaymard and his replacement by France Telecom CEO Thierry Breton, the latter doubtless already owning some fabulous Paris apartment which will save him the bother of having to get the ministry pay 14,000 euro a month for one for him, as with his predecessor. The scandal clearly highlights a changed mood in the French media towards a huge grey area of high official conduct that was not illegal but clearly involved some very polished snouts in the public trough. For instance, this London Times story notes how President Mitterand operated under very different rules -- with the mistress and daughter thereof living in an annex of the Elysée Palace.

Which is where we get several Irish angles to les affaires. Mitterand himself was a role model for Charlie Haughey, whose corruption and stroke politics sent the Republic down a cul-de-sac in the 1980s. It stands to reason that the Republic's ruling class would want to avoid aping too obviously their British counterparts, with the French offering a perfect alternative. So Haughey liked the French style in general and Mitterand's version of Imperious Republican in particular. It was especially helpful that one could easily manage the man-of-the-people trick even in the midst of this high living: Charlie could get measured for his tailored shirts at Charvet, then go to the opposite corner of the street to Kitty O'Shea's for pints with vacationing plebs, while getting the finished shirts sent home in the diplomatic bag.

Now there are differences. Mitterand ran a much better economic policy than Charlie did, or at least allowed the technocrats to take over before too much damage was done. And to contemporaneous observers, he was less corrupt than Charlie. But this perception owes a lot to the extraordinary deference he received from the media, and yet despite this, he, like Charlie, felt the need to spy on the more inquisitive media types. Not least anyone who might show too much interest in his living arrangements as mentioned above.

Hence the creation of an anti-terrorist surveillance unit reporting directly to Mitterand. While it's all well and good to have one own's personal spying unit to keep an eye on pesky hacks, if it's going to be called an anti-terrorist unit, it does need to justify its existence with some actual terrorism busts. So what could be better than the discovery of an IRA arms smuggling operation in 1982, complete with 3 high profile arrests? Except that, the whole thing was a set-up. The case unravelled and the wrongfully arrested "Vincennes Irish" marked the beginning of the end for the unit. [Surprisingly difficult to find a good English language link for this affair; here's a French one where your Franglais will get you through]

The end took a long time to come, though. Mitterand managed to go almost his entire 14 years in office without any serious scrutiny of the spying unit, with only a Belgian interviewer having the guts to bring it up towards the end of his final term (at which point Mitterand finished the interview). And now, 10 years after that and 20 years after the Vincennes stunt, a court case is finally dragging out the facts. Charlie Haughey's successor, Bertie Ahern, has left the French high living to other family members, but he's no less keen on imitating those long timelines, for investigating dodgy conduct.

UPDATE 7 JUNE: The death of Sean Doherty reminds us that Charlie Haughey, like Mitterand, ran his own secret operation to spy on journalists.

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