The Telegraph, U.K.
THE scandal-ridden French resort of Nice has been rocked by fresh corruption claims. The city's chief public prosecutor says a network of freemasons is perverting the local justice system.
In a case reminiscent of Graham Greene's J'Accuse attack on crime and corruption in the Riviera resort in the late Seventies, the prosecutor Eric de Montgolfier has accused local magistrates of covering up serious wrongdoing to protect influential members of masonic lodges.
Dossiers that have been "buried", according to Mr de Montgolfier, include paedophilia allegations against a number of Nice's magistrates and cases involving large-scale fraud. Although he has been in his post for only seven months, the prosecutor says that he has never before encountered such a pervasive level of judicial misconduct.
Mr de Montgolfier travelled to Paris last week for a meeting with the Minister of Justice, Elisabeth Guigou. According to insiders, he presented her with evidence that the National Grand Lodge of France was behind the "infiltration" of various levels of the magistrature. France's sixth largest city is no stranger to such scandal. A rich stew of corruption, influence-peddling and organised crime has been cooking for decades.
Twenty years ago, Greene, then living in Antibes - launched a personal battle against what he saw as a conspiracy of bent flics and crooked lawyers in the city that likes to be called the "Queen of the Côte d'Azur". At the time, the daughter of Greene's companion was having trouble with a local hoodlum whom she had divorced. Exploiting his prominence in France, the writer complained to the Justice Ministry in Paris about the lack of action by the authorities in Nice.
When that got nowhere, he penned a fiery pamphlet, J'Accuse, in which the city was acidly described as "the reserve of some of the most criminal organisations in the south of France". One prominent Right-wing politician appeared to endorse that view when he was asked, as a good son of Nice, to run for mayor. "Thanks," he said, "but I don't want to spend the rest of my life inside a bulletproof vest."
The scandal that Mr de Montgolfier is uncovering runs much deeper, reflecting the enormous powers of patronage and the scope for under-the-table deals provided by the French system of local government. Although the prosecutor has not yet named names, one of the cases concerns a senior magistrate who served under the late corrupt mayor, Jacques Medecin. The magistrate features prominently in a number of questionable property deals being examined by Mr de Montgolfier, and is identified as a senior mason on the membership roll of the National Grand Lodge.
Another official under investigation is a former police inspector who belongs to the same lodge and was for many years responsible for inquiries into cases being handled by local magistrates. Mr de Montgolfier has found dusty records of investigations - some involving alleged paedophiles within the magistrature - that were abandoned without explanation.
"This is the big chance to clean up problems with the judiciary here, which everybody knows about," one local lawyer told the newspaper Libération last week. A young magistrate who is backing Mr de Montgolfier said: "When you are on the bench and you belong to a particular circle - no matter what it is; the Rotary even - you run the risk of losing your independence."
In his official report to the Justice Minister, the prosecutor has underlined what he regards as the dangers inherent in attempting to serve the interests of both justice and the masons. "Those who appear in court have the right to know who is judging them," he says. "You don't want to find yourself up in front of someone with two faces."
Many of Nice's problems can be laid at the door of Mr Medecin, the arch-fixer who was mayor for 25 years after inheriting the job from his father. Under Jacques Medecin, cronyism became a highly profitable art form, with corruption embedded at virtually every level of public life in Nice, although that did not discourage voters from giving him four successive terms in office. But since his death two years ago, not long after he was released from jail for fraud, tax evasion and bribe-taking, the smooth-running Medecin machine has begun to stall.
More recently, an influx of gangsters from the former Soviet Union - many lugging suitcases stuffed with cash for the purchase of expensive properties - has done little to diminish the city's reputation in the rest of France as a place apart. Extensive media coverage of the more colourful aspects of crime à la Niçois has reinforced the caricature of a paradise for confidence tricksters, with phoney police and unqualified doctors and lawyers preying on the large and prosperous community of pensioners.