Score settlement? French Justice Minister faces new scandal as prosecutors investigate conflicts of interest

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 opponents from his previous career as a high-profile lawyer.

The Dupond-Moretti conflict of interest inquiry marks the first time a sitting French justice minister has been formally investigated and comes after French investigators conducted a 15-hour search of the Justice Department’s office in Dupond-Moretti on July 1.

L’affaire Dupond-Moretti began in January when the Court of Justice (Cour de justice de la République) opened an investigation over allegations by magistrates’ unions and the anti-corruption association Anticor that his role as minister of justice magistrates deprived him of his role during his have crossed previous legal careers. The Court of Justice is a special body charged with investigating alleged misconduct by sitting ministers.

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

Dupond-Moretti filed a legal complaint as a private individual when it became known in June 2020 that his phone had been tapped; he accused the magistrates of acting as “spies”. But he withdrew the complaint when Macron unexpectedly appointed him justice minister the following month.

He ordered the investigation shortly after the Justice Inspectorate General released a report in September 2020 about the financial prosecutor’s wiretapping, commissioned by Dupond-Moretti’s predecessor, Nicole Belloubet. The report released the financial prosecutor from wrongdoing, but at the same time said the agency needed to “change the way it operates.” Dupond-Moretti, when he ordered the investigation, said the report revealed “a degree of dysfunction” in the organization.

The second conflict of interest allegation concerns an investigation Dupond-Moretti commissioned the Inspector General in July 2020 against Édouard Levrault – a magistrate known for his anti-corruption investigations in Monaco when he was seconded to the principality. Before his appointment as justice minister, Dupond-Moretti had publicly accused Levrault of using “cowboy” methods and “violating the confidentiality of an investigation” when he charged a senior Monégasque police officer who was defending Dupond-Moretti in court.

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

A ‘Vivid Critic of Judges’

Dupond-Moretti strongly denies both allegations — saying he was merely “following the recommendations” of Justice Department officials and that magistrates’ unions are using the allegations as a ploy to thwart his reforms of the French justice system and harass him. replaced as Minister of Justice.

In October 2020, Macron’s government responded to months-long claims by magistrates’ unions that Dupond-Moretti’s cabinet role constituted a conflict of interest by stripping him of his authority over all issues related to his former career as a lawyer, leaving Prime Minister Jean Castex responsible for such matters.

With Dupond-Moretti under formal investigation, both Macron and Castex have joined his defense. “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 on Friday during a visit to the Tour de France.

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 of the justice system.

The inquiries Dupond-Moretti ordered from the magistrates were launched as a follow-up to inquiries launched by his predecessor Belloubet, the prime minister noted, reiterating the arguments Dupond-Moretti and his lawyers have put forward in defense.

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

Dupond-Moretti was both admired and reviled as a criminal defense attorney. Nicknamed the “acquittal” – a portmanteau of “acquittal” and “terminator” – for winning more than 120 acquittals over 36 years in court, he was hailed in some quarters as a champion of defendants’ rights and the plague of prosecutors.

Others, however, saw his combative style very differently – especially when he unsuccessfully defended Abdelkader Merah, who was convicted in 2017 of inspiring and aiding his jihadist brother Mohamed Merah in the murder of three French paratroopers and then three children and a rabbi on 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 media at the time.

Dupond-Moretti was “a lively critic of judges and magistrates” when he was a lawyer, noted Marc Perelman, the French political editor of FRANCE 24. The Justice Minister and Macron’s government believe this is essentially a vendetta because when Dupond-Moretti was nominated, he swore the magistrates “wouldn’t have a good time with me,” Perelman said, so they believe that this is “payback period”.

‘Clumsy’ for Macron

Unsurprisingly, the Macron government’s defense of Dupond-Moretti has failed to convince its left-wing opponents.

“Macron’s democratic revolution is amazing: a justice minister is being formally investigated for the first time,” Julien Bayou, leader of France’s Greens, told reporters. Dupond-Moretti “just can’t” stay in office, Bayou continued.

“When a minister is formally investigated, he must resign,” Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure told France Info radio, quoting verbatim a phrase Macron used in 2017 while campaigning for his victorious presidential bid .

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

The questioning of Dupond-Moretti at the Court of Justice is “unprecedented”, emphasizes Perelman. “Generally speaking, it is former ministers who have to appear in this court for something they would… [allegedly] done while sitting in the office. We have never seen a minister currently standing before these judges, and what is even more puzzling is that it is the Minister of Justice.”

Indeed, at the start of Macron’s presidential term in 2017, his prime minister of justice François Bayrou quickly resigned after undergoing just a preliminary investigation into financial impropriety in his MoDem party. Macron fired another minister, Richard Ferrand, after he was formally investigated over allegations that he caused his wife to benefit from an ownership deal with a state health insurance fund.

Comparing Dupond-Moretti’s approach to Bayrou’s quick dismissal, Perelman said: “You can see there is a problem.”

But Macron hopes pressure won’t stop him from keeping Dupond-Moretti at work, Perelman said, as he is “one of the few stars and one of the few well-known ministers in his government”.

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