Resigning Judge Says Charges Facing French President Worse Than Watergate

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Paris ( - A French anti-corruption judge has resigned after claiming that a seven-year investigation he had conducted into allegations against President Jacques Chirac had been sabotaged.

Investigating magistrate Eric Halphen claims he was followed, bugged, photographed and harassed while he tried to do his job.

He compared the allegations facing Chirac to those that led to President Nixon's resignation over the Watergate affair in 1974, saying Nixon had resigned over matters a thousand times less serious.

Halphen's claims, made in a newspaper interview, have caused a stir in France, and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who leads the opposition to Chirac's party, agreed that the investigative judge had been a victim of political maneuvers. Jospin also saluted Halphen's hard work.

The prime minister is expected to be Chirac's main opponent in forthcoming presidential elections in the spring, although neither man has yet announced his candidacy.

One of the few politicians who have declared candidacy in the presidential race, Citizens' Movement head Jean-Pierre Chevenement, also praised Halphen's work and said it took a lot of courage to be judge nowadays.

Halphen led what started out as an investigation into suspected financial impropriety at the time Chirac was mayor of Paris in the 1980s and early 1990s.

He surprised complacent politicians by attempting to summon the president as an ordinary witness, after a videotape by a former party official accused Chirac of collecting kickbacks for his party from public funds for housing bids.

The president claimed political immunity and in September 2001, a court ruled that Halphen had made procedural errors. The investigation was then taken away from him.

He complained in an interview with Le Parisien that there was a two-tier justice system in France.

One was for ordinary people, he said, while the other was reserved for the powerful, who can accept large bribes without having to fear the consequences.

Halphen said he was resigning because his investigation had been systematically sabotaged. He had been followed, filmed, and wiretapped, he said, a situation that had left him feeling scared, intimidated, and isolated.

Halphen could not continue carrying out other investigations knowing that powerful men such as Chirac were beyond investigation.

Patrick Boulot, a plumber, said he was not surprised by Halphen's accusations of harassment.

Reading the popular tabloid during a coffee break, Boulot commented: "They already took the case away from him. He must have been embarrassing, with the elections coming up."

A commentator on the LCI all-news French cable channel remarked that with Halphen's resignation, the issue was no longer simply one of corruption but related to the integrity of the judicial system itself.

Reaction also came from further afield. Germany's Berliner Zeitung said in an editorial that Halphen had been "threatened, hindered and sabotaged" in his investigation although the evidence against Chirac had been "weighty."

The paper noted that the day Halphen had summoned the president to appear as a witness "perhaps changed the country more than all political reforms of the last few decades." The judge had to pay for his audacity, it said.