Éric Dupond-Moretti, Minister of Justice of France, goes to trial | ET REALITY

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Even in France, where cases of political corruption abound, it was a sight to behold: the country’s Minister of Justice, alone before two rows of judges in an old wood-paneled courtroom, to defend himself against accusations about his own use (or abuse) of force.

Although he made a name in France as a combative criminal defense lawyer who could devastate witnesses or jurors, Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti presented himself Tuesday as the polar opposite: a new minister deeply humbled by the task at hand. had entrusted him, who was learning the ropes, following advice and working hard, and whose only worrying goal was to succeed at work. No, he said with a flourish, “with foam on his lips,” hoping for revenge.

This is the first time a sitting minister has faced trial before a special court for alleged crimes related to his official duties. If he is found guilty, it will be a blow to President Emmanuel Macron, who came to power on a promise to tighten ethical standards in French politics.

But what makes it even more exceptional is that, as justice minister, Dupond-Moretti is being tried in the system he continues to oversee. Many of the more than 20 witnesses who will testify during the 10-day trial, which began Monday, are sitting judges or senior legal officials who, in theory, should ultimately answer to him.

Among the assigned judges are political rivals from opposition parties, dressed for the occasion in black robes and ruffled white collars, sitting under the golden chandeliers in the same room where Philippe Pétain, the French president who collaborated with the regime, stood. Nazi during World War II. tried and convicted of treason some eight decades ago.

The charges against Dupond-Moretti are nowhere near that order.

These are two separate incidents, dating shortly after his appointment as Minister of Justice in July 2020. His appointment itself was considered “a declaration of war against the judiciary” as he “despises judges” and “ “He doesn’t hesitate to insult them.” the president of the largest judges union in the country he declared on national radio at the time.

In one case, Dupond-Moretti launched a disciplinary investigation against three magistrates of the national financial prosecutor’s office who had ordered police to scrutinize his telephone records when he was still a lawyer while searching for the identity of a possible mole in a case involving former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Although a judicial review had already cleared the magistrates of any wrongdoing, Dupond-Moretti’s office launched a new investigation.

In the second incident, Mr. Dupond-Moretti initiated administrative proceedings against a judge, Édouard Levrault, who had investigated one of his former clients. In that case, too, Mr. Levrault was ultimately acquitted of any disciplinary infractions.

“Even if these judges were not good judges (maybe they didn’t work well, maybe they should have been sanctioned), that’s not the problem,” said Paul Cassia, vice president of Anticor, a nonprofit anti-corruption association that filed a complaint. . to initiate the judicial case, together with three unions of judges. “The problem is that a minister cannot use his authority in a matter that involves his personal interest.”

Standing alone at a glass podium placed in the palm of the courtroom, surrounded by rows of judges and spectators, Dupond-Moretti argued Tuesday that he was following his office’s advice about the files he had inherited from his predecessor.

If found guilty, he could face five years in prison and a fine of half a million euros. He could also be excluded from any public office.

However, few expect that to happen.

The court hearing the case, called the Court of Justice of the Republic, was specially created in 1993 to try members of the government cabinet for crimes they allegedly committed in the performance of their official duties.

Since then, he has attended fewer than a dozen cases. Composed of three professional judges and 12 legislators (half from the Senate and half from the National Assembly), the court has long been criticized for being too politically partisan and too lenient towards its political colleagues.

He has never sentenced anyone to prison and has often even issued suspended sentences.

In a famous example, the court acquitted former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua in two damning cases of embezzlement, one of them involving a Corsican casino license he had granted to friends in exchange for funding his political activities. It did find the former minister-turned-senator complicit in the misuse of corporate funds in relation to a government-backed company that exported police equipment, but in light of his age and the service he had rendered to his country, He was given a one-year suspended sentence.

Meanwhile, one of the men granted the casino license was found guilty by another court and sentenced to four years in prison, two of which were suspended, and a fine of 150,000 euros.

“The jurisdiction is very political because it will take into account factors that ordinary courts do not take into account,” said Cécile Guérin-Bargues, author of “Trying Politicians? “The Court of Justice of the Republic.”

The specter of MPs taking a vow of objectivity and donning black robes to judge a sitting minister from their own party, or one with whom they argued politically, has also sparked fierce criticism in the country for years.

“A judge should not be prejudiced against the person he judges, and that is the case: the 12 parliamentarians are prejudiced,” said Cassia, who is also a law professor at Paris 1 University. issue, it will be considered biased for or against Dupond-Moretti. That’s not good.”

While not a constitutional requirement, in most cases where politicians are criminally charged, they resign during the process. Dupond-Moretti has refused to do the same and the government has backed that decision, even reappointing him to his powerful post after a cabinet shuffle last July, long after the legal proceedings had begun.

“The image of justice will not improve with this process, nor will the image of politics,” said Ms. Guérin-Bargues. “No one will win.”

The case has already proven embarrassing for President Macron, who has in the past promised to scrap the specialized court.

Gendarmes searched the Justice Ministry offices on the elegant Place Vendôme, and former Prime Minister Jean Castex is expected to take the stand.

Dupond-Moretti, who is not known for his restraint, has declared that the case was a malicious attempt. by vengeful judges’ unions to humiliate him and force him to resign.

“I feel like I’ve been abused,” he said in court Tuesday.

Dupond-Moretti was known as a swashbuckling criminal lawyer who won dozens of acquittals but also intimidated witnesses and even judges.

Among the long list of clients he has defended are Jérôme Kerviel, the dishonest trader who nearly brought down a major French bank; Karim Benzema, star footballer; and Abdelkader Merah, whose brother Mohammed killed three French paratroopers, a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in southwestern France in 2012.

To say she loves being the center of attention would be an understatement. In 2019, a year before being elected minister, Dupond-Moretti appeared on a Parisian stage. in a one man work About his life.

He also enjoys confrontation. In March, during a public session in the National Assembly, where ministers answer questions from parliamentarians from the front rows, Dupond-Moretti turned the tables on an opposition opposition. legislator the finger.

Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle and Aurelien Breeden contributed to the research.

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