French justice minister on trial over alleged abuse of office

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Emmanuel Macron’s justice minister appeared in front of a special tribunal on Monday over alleged conflicts of interest and abuse of office, the first time a sitting member of the French government has had to face the body.

Éric Dupond-Moretti, a former celebrity defence lawyer who was an unconventional pick for minister by the French president in 2020, denounced the trial as “an infamy”. He will remain in his job during the proceedings, which are expected to last 10 days.

The allegations centre on whether Dupond-Moretti abused his position to settle old scores with magistrates and prosecutors he clashed during his decades as a defence lawyer. His case is being heard by a special tribunal focused on ministerial misconduct and composed of three judges and 12 members of parliament.

The case has thrown a spotlight on Macron’s habit of retaining ministers and advisers who run into legal problems, despite having pledged in the 2017 presidential election campaign to run a clean, transparent government.

“I have every confidence in Eric Dupond-Moretti, he does an excellent job, and like everyone he has the right to be presumed innocent,” prime minister Elisabeth Borne said before the hearings began.

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The case — initially sparked in part by complaints filed by a leftwing union representing judges that opposed Dupond-Moretti’s appointment — will also test the special tribunal, the Cour de Justice de la République (CJR). Critics say the body is overly politicised and ineffective because MPs sit alongside judges. 

“The situation is a very strange one. You’ve got a sitting minister being judged over conflicts of interest by people with whom he has a conflict of interest,” said Paul Cassia, vice-chair of Anticor, an anti-corruption organisation that lodged the initial complaint against the minister.

“What we reproach Éric Dupond-Moretti with is having used a public function to satisfy private interests,” added Cassia ahead of the trial in which he is set to appear as a witness.   

Dupond-Moretti, a combative orator known for defending Société Générale’s rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, has denied wrongdoing. If found guilty, he risks five years in prison and a €500,000 fine. 

“For me and for those close to be, this trial is an infamy,” Dupond-Moretti told the court, according to news agency AFP. He said that it was also “a relief” to be able to defend himself. He is set to take the stand and answer questions on Tuesday.

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One of the allegations against him centres around whether, once in office, he recused himself sufficiently from a case against another magistrate with whom he had previously locked horns.

The other revolves around the fact that days before becoming justice minister, he filed a lawsuit alleging that the office of the financial crimes prosecutor had invaded his privacy by accessing his phone records and those of other lawyers when it was probing alleged graft by former president Nicolas Sarkozy. 

Dupond-Moretti withdrew his complaint when he was appointed to the government. But soon after, he pursued a disciplinary inquiry into three judges at the financial crimes prosecutor’s office. 

Macron has opted to retain Dupond-Moretti, including in a mini-reshuffle in July. The minister’s period in office has been marked by a historic increase in the justice department’s budget to fund extra court staff and judges in a bid to cut the delays plaguing legal procedures, as well as measures to alleviate prison overcrowding.

Several other high-profile members of Macron’s inner circle are facing legal challenges, including labour minister Olivier Dussopt, who will be tried on corruption charges in a different court later this month over allegations relating to when he was a mayor. Alexis Kohler, the president’s top adviser in the Elysée, is under formal investigation by the financial crimes prosecutor’s office for allegedly violating conflict of interest laws to favour a Swiss-Italian shipping company with which he has family ties.

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Both men deny any wrongdoing.

Macron had pledged in 2017 that any minister named a formal suspect in a legal probe would be required to step down. 

Transparency International France, the anti-corruption charity, called for the justice minister to quit when he was ordered to stand trial last October, and opposition politicians have also urged him to resign.

The CJR has previously heard cases against former ministers, including ex-finance minister and current ECB chief Christine Lagarde, who in 2016 was convicted of negligence in public office over a fraudulent payment by the state to late entrepreneur Bernard Tapie. More recently it has been investigating Macron’s former health minister Agnès Buzyn over her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But the tribunal has made few convictions and imposed mostly light penalties. Critics say this is because elected officials are involved in the decisions. Several presidents, including François Hollande and Macron himself, have considered abolishing it, and a recent conference of experts aimed at reforming judicial institutions called for it to be scrapped.

The trial will run until November 16 and will be followed by a ruling.