Settling scores? French justice minister in the hotseat as prosecutors probe conflicts of interest

·6-min read

A formal investigation into possible conflicts of interest was opened Friday into French Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti, who is suspected of using his political influence to settle scores with adversaries dating from his previous career as a high-profile defence lawyer.

The conflict of interest probe into Dupond-Moretti marks the first time a sitting French justice minister has been placed under formal investigation and comes after French investigators conducted a 15-hour search at Dupond-Moretti’s justice ministry office on July 1.

L’affaire Dupond-Moretti started in January when the Court of Justice (Cour de justice de la République) opened an investigation in response to accusations by magistrates’ unions and the Anticor anti-corruption association that he used his role as justice minister to target magistrates who crossed him during his prior legal career. The Court of Justice is a special body tasked with probing alleged misconduct by sitting government ministers.

The first of the allegations concerns Dupond-Moretti’s decision to order an investigation into three magistrates at the National Financial Prosecutor's Office (PNF) in September 2020. He maintained that the magistrates had acted improperly by instructing the police to tap his phone and those of several other lawyers in 2014. The surveillance was aimed at investigating suspicions that an inside source had informed ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and his lawyer, Thierry Herzog (a friend of Dupond-Moretti’s), that they had been wiretapped during an investigation into illegal financing by Sarkozy’s campaign.

Dupond-Moretti filed a legal complaint as a private citizen when it was revealed in June 2020 that his phone had been tapped; he accused the magistrates of acting like “spies”. But he withdrew the complaint when Macron made him justice minister in a surprise move the following month.

He ordered the probe soon after the Inspectorate General of Justice published a September 2020 report into the financial prosecutor’s wiretapping of lawyers, commissioned by Dupond-Moretti’s predecessor Nicole Belloubet. The report cleared the Financial Prosecutor’s Office of wrongdoing – but at the same time said the agency needed to “change the way it operates”. Dupond-Moretti said as he ordered the investigation that the report revealed “a certain amount of dysfunction” at the organisation.

The second conflict of interest allegation concerns a probe Dupond-Moretti ordered the Inspectorate General to carry out in July 2020 against Édouard Levrault – a magistrate famous for anti-corruption investigations in Monaco when seconded to the principality. Before his appointment as justice minister, Dupond-Moretti had publicly accused Levrault of using “cowboy” methods and “breaching the confidentiality of an investigation” when indicting a senior Monégasque police officer Dupond-Moretti was defending in court.

Dupond-Moretti had filed a legal complaint against Levrault on behalf of his client before he was parachuted into politics; the resulting investigation is ongoing.

A ‘vivid critic of judges’

Dupond-Moretti strongly denies both allegations – saying that he was merely “following the recommendations” of justice ministry officials and that magistrates’ unions are using the accusations as a ploy to hamstring his reforms of the French legal system and to replace him as justice minister.

In October 2020, Macron’s government responded to months of claims from magistrates’ unions that Dupond-Moretti’s cabinet role posed a conflict of interest by stripping him of authority over any issues relating to his former career as a lawyer, giving Prime Minister Jean Castex responsibility for such matters.

Now that Dupond-Moretti has been placed under formal investigation, both Macron and Castex have rallied to his defence. “The justice minister has the same rights as everyone else, including the presumption of innocence and the ability to defend his rights,” the president told reporters during a visit to the Tour de France on Friday.

Castex said in an official statement the same day that he wanted to reiterate his “complete confidence” in Dupond-Moretti and encouraged him to continue with his reforms to the justice system.

The inquiries Dupond-Moretti ordered into the magistrates were launched as a follow-up to investigations launched by his predecessor Belloubet, the prime minister noted – reiterating arguments Dupond-Moretti and his lawyers have made in his defence.

Others have also rallied to his defence. Two MPs who also worked for the Court of Justice as professional lawyers – Naïma Moutchou from Macron’s Republic On the Move party and Antoine Savignat from the conservative Les Républicains – resigned from the body over the Dupond-Moretti probe. Moutchou said she was refusing to “take part in this semblance of justice” motivated by “a handful of magistrates’ undisguised desire to reduce a justice minister to political impotence”.

Dupond-Moretti was both admired and reviled as a criminal lawyer. Nicknamed the “Acquittator” – a portmanteau of “acquittal” and “terminator” – for winning more than 120 acquittals during 36 years in the courtroom, he was lauded in some quarters as a champion of defendants’ rights and the scourge of prosecutors.

However, others perceived his pugnacious style very differently – most notably when he unsuccessfully defended Abdelkader Merah, who was convicted in 2017 of inspiring and helping his jihadist brother Mohamed Merah murder three French paratroopers and then three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012.

“People said I was a disgrace to my profession; people threatened my children” – but it was an “honour” to defend him, Dupond-Moretti told the media at the time.

Dupond-Moretti was “a vivid critic of judges and magistrates” when he was a lawyer, noted FRANCE 24’s French politics editor Marc Perelman. The justice minister and the Macron government believe this is essentially a vendetta, because when Dupond-Moretti was nominated he vowed that the magistrates were “not going to have their way with me”, Perelman said, so they believe this is “payback”.

‘Awkward’ for Macron

Unsurprisingly, the Macron government’s defence of Dupond-Moretti has not convinced its left-wing opponents.

“Macron’s democratic revolution is great: A justice minister is placed under formal investigation for the first time,” Julien Bayou, leader of the French Greens, told reporters. Dupond-Moretti “simply can’t” remain in office, Bayou continued.

“When a minister is placed under formal investigation, he must resign,” Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure told France Info radio, quoting verbatim a line Macron used in 2017 while on the campaign trail for his victorious presidential bid.

Keeping Dupond-Moretti in office will be “awkward” for Macron’s government, Perelman said.

Dupond-Moretti’s questioning at the Court of Justice is “unprecedented”, Perelman underlined. “Generally, it’s former ministers having to go before this court for something they’d [allegedly] done while in office. We’ve never before seen a minister currently serving going in front of these judges, and what’s even more puzzling is that it’s the justice minister.”

Indeed, at the outset of Macron’s presidential term in 2017, his first justice minister François Bayrou, quickly resigned after facing a mere preliminary investigation over financial impropriety in his MoDem party. Macron dismissed another minister, Richard Ferrand, after he was placed under formal investigation over accusations that he ensured his wife benefitted in a property deal with a state health insurance fund.

When comparing Dupond-Moretti’s approach to Bayrou’s swift resignation, Perelman said, “You see there is a problem.”

But Macron hopes that pressure will not prevent him from keeping Dupond-Moretti on, Perelman said, because he is “one of the only stars and one of the only well-known ministers in his government”.

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