PICTURE A new French revolution in which the revolutionaries wear black robes, white gloves and black hats shaped like camembert cheeses.
The most dynamic force in French society in the 1990s is not political or intellectual but judicial. A handful of investigating magistrates have become the new public heroes, the new media stars.
From the illegal funding of political parties; to the pillaging of state enterprises; to drug-taking in the Tour de France; to the operation of prostitution rackets for the rich and famous, the magistrates have dragged into the light a series of illicit practices which were long suspected but never challenged. Amongst those publicly accused, but in many cases not yet charged, are two former prime ministers, a former foreign minister who now heads France's supreme constitutional body, the Mayor of Paris, scores of other ex-ministers and senior businessmen, including the former heads of Elf, Alcatel, Paribas and Credit Lyonnais, and hundreds of small-town mayors, MPs and local politicians and officials. Those already disgraced and convicted include the former mayors of Lyons and Grenoble, the former treasurer of the Socialist Party and France's best known TV news presenter. It is even suggested that the president may be the next to be "mis en examen", or placed under formal investigation. Some French commentators - not all of them apologists for wrong- doers - suggest that the United States should count itself lucky to have only one independent special prosecutor in Kenneth Starr. France has 600 of them and they are not special but permanent. The investigating magistrate or juge d'instruction has no equivalent in the British legal system. His or her job is to examine all sides of the most complex criminal cases - everything from the byzantine finances of the Gaullist party to the accident which killed Diana, Princess of Wales - before a decision is taken on whether to bring formal charges. Once a case is given to them, they have considerable powers: powers to search, to subpoena, to question under oath, to imprison for up to six months without trial; powers to humiliate and to destroy reputations. Juges d'instruction are a class apart. They go through their own separate training school and on formal occasions they don the uniform described above. (More typically they are seen wearing a thrusting leather jacket or a smart trouser-suit beside some hand-cuffed notable on the TV news.) Their names - Renaud Van Ruymbeke, Eric Halphen, Eva Joly, Laurence Vichnievsky, Patrick Desmure, Herve Stephan - have become almost as well known in France as the politicians themselves. The fact that there is a disproportionate number of foreign- sounding names on the list of the most aggressive magistrates suggests to some people that there is a foreign plot to destroy the French way of business and politics. In fact, all are as French as Jean-Marie Le Pen or Zinedine Zidane, with one curious exception. Eva Joly, the nemesis of the former Socialist foreign minister, Roland Dumas, first came to France as a Norwegian au pair. But why is all this happening now? What does it all mean? Is this a sign of France growing up; of France becoming more like other western democracies (not necessarily the same thing)? Or is this a paroxysm of priggishness which will end in public revulsion against the excesses of an overweening judicial system, as has happened in Italy, and up to a point, in the US? Alain Minc, a right-wing intellectual (no longer a contradiction in terms in France) analyses the phenomenon in a brilliant, short book, Au Nom de la Loi (In the Name of the Law), published by Gallimard. He argues that France, almost without realising it, has undergone in the last eight years its most complete revolution since the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of the First Republic in 1792. For 206 years, he says, France, has been founded, not on law, but on the sovereign power of the people, which is most often expressed, in practice, by elites ruling in the people's name). …