The case of Éric Dupond-Moretti, the French Minister of Justice who survived a trial for abuse of authority

For the first time in France, a sitting minister has sat in the dock. And, to add even more solemnity to this unprecedented judicial process, the protagonist was the head of the Justice portfolio, Éric Dupond-Moretti. The trial closed on November 29 when the Court of Justice of the Republic (TJR) declared the minister not guilty of “illegal acquisition of interests”, a crime that implies both an abuse of authority and a conflict of interest.

For the acts of which he was accused, Dupond-Moretti risked a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of 500,000 euros, as well as disqualification from holding political office. However, at the beginning of the judicial process, which began three weeks ago, the prosecutor had finally requested a year in prison – without imprisonment – ​​for his hierarchical superior.

Upon arrival at the ministry, Dupond-Moretti had ordered – through her chief of staff – two administrative investigations into four members of the judiciary with whom she had clashed in the past. A decision that provoked an unprecedented mobilization of magistrates’ unions and triggered a three-year judicial process that culminated in this month’s trial.

In its ruling, the court does not deny the facts judged and considers that, indeed, the Minister of Justice was “in an objective situation of conflict of interest” and that his decisions were materially constitutive of the crime of which he was accused, but he He acquitted him on the grounds that he was not aware of it, that it had not been communicated to him and that, therefore, he lacked the necessary “intentional element.”

Exceptional jurisdiction, the TJR is the only instance authorized to try a member of the French Government. It is a hybrid court between the judicial and legislative powers: it is made up of three judges and 12 parliamentarians, six deputies and six senators. The trial and sentence reopen the debate in France on the existence of this special court. An important part of jurists, researchers and politicians advocate its suppression or a radical reform, to avoid the existence of an endogamous justice in the political world.

A media figure

During the trial, the minister and his lawyers had pointed out the desire for revenge of the magistrates’ unions and the former TJR prosecutor, François Molins, against Dupond-Moretti. The minister and the judiciary have been at odds since the moment he was appointed, an arrival that the magistrates received as a “declaration of war” from Emmanuel Macron.

The chronicles of the weeks of trial relate how Dupond-Moretti once again exhibited some of the habits that – along with his eloquence – made him the most famous lawyer in the country. Sighs, grunts, exclamations and throat clearings during the prosecution’s arguments, curt responses during interrogations… Tactics that the “ogre of the criminal court”, as his colleagues knew him, had deployed during the more than three decades in which his name was part of the French judicial chronicle: the bakery d’Outrau, the Viguier affair or the Corsican gang of the Brise de Mer.

His fame led him to frequent television sets, to surround himself with film directors and actors and to begin a career in acting himself, prior to his surprising entry into the Government. A fan of hunting –especially falconry–, his attacks against the modern world, against the speed limit of 80 kilometers per hour, against anti-bullfighting, quinoa and #metoo, made him chain controversies and multiply his appearances in the media. “We live in a time of absolute mediocrity, hypermoralistic and hygienistic,” he lamented in an interview.

The last decade marked a transition away from criminal courts, with new clients of a different profile such as the king of Morocco, some of the great African fortunes and François Hollande’s short-lived finance minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, prosecuted for tax fraud.

personal vendettas

The accusations have come to him precisely in relation to two of these high-profile clients that he had as a lawyer. The first refers to the expulsion from Monaco of a French investigating judge, Édouard Levrault, who was investigating the Russian businessman Dmitri Rybolovlev – president of AS Monaco – and the director of the local judicial police. Levreault bothered the authorities of the Principality to the point that they agreed with their French counterparts on the transfer of the judge.

Dupond-Moretti was, briefly, lawyer for the director of the Police and for a time legal advisor to two companies of the Russian billionaire in the Virgin Islands. After being removed from the case, Levrault appeared in a report on public television France 3 denouncing the poor functioning of the Monegasque Justice, statements that provoked the wrath of Dupond-Moretti, who strongly denounced the “cowboy” methods of the judge and the damage to your client’s reputation. Shortly after, he was appointed minister and his chief of staff ordered an administrative investigation against Judge Levrault.

The second case refers to the National Financial Prosecutor’s Office (PNF), which was investigating Nicolas Sarkozy, alias Paul Bismuth, in several cases and which had the former president under surveillance on a telephone with which he communicated with his lawyers. When investigators discovered that someone had warned Sarkozy that his communications were being monitored, they began to look for who could have warned the former president. Detailed telephone bills from several lawyers were analyzed, including those of Dupond-Moretti, a friend of Sarkozy’s lawyer.

Eric Dupond-Moretti then denounced this “investigation using spy methods” and filed a complaint. A few months later, upon his arrival at the ministry, foreseeing a conflict of interest, he withdrew the complaint. However, he took advantage of an ongoing administrative investigation into the general functioning of the PNF to reorient its objective towards three prosecutors in particular, involved in the matter of telephone bills.

The three were sent before the National Council of the Judiciary – the same as Judge Levrault – and in all cases it was concluded that there was no fault. Dupond-Moretti will not have to sit in the dock again after the Prosecutor’s Office has given up appealing. The attorney general of the Court of Appeal, Rémi Heitz, justified this decision in an interview last Monday because in the event of a new appeal trial there would be an “extremely complex procedure with a result in the end surely random.”

Protected from the Elysée

Dupond-Moretti’s lawyers had announced that any conviction would mean the minister’s resignation. The same diagnosis was made by the Head of Government, Elisabeth Borne, who had ruled out the possibility of a convicted minister continuing in her position; a reference to both Dupond-Moretti and Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt, currently prosecuted in a favoritism case.

The Elysee Palace, however, has refused to comment throughout the process and there has been speculation in several French media outlets that, in the event of a guilty verdict, Macron would have been willing to keep the minister until the end of an appeal process.

As a candidate in 2017, Macron had defended the “moralization of public life” during the campaign, marking judicial accusation as a red line for members of the Government. In fact, his first Minister of Justice, François Bayrou, had to resign even before Justice announced his indictment in a case of embezzlement of European Parliament funds.

But Macron has since adopted a “case-by-case” approach, which prevented the resignation of Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin when a judicial investigation for sexual harassment and breach of trust was opened (ultimately dismissed). In recent years, Macron has complained about the “judicialization of political life” and has denounced a supposed “parallel Republic of judges.”

Furthermore, the head of state has made Dupond-Moretti one of his most effective spokespersons against the extreme right, due to his ideological profile and his oratorical ability. The day before the sentencing, during the last session of questions to the Government in the National Assembly, Dupond-Moretti had criticized the “indecent demagoguery” of Le Pen’s party, in response to a question from a member of the National Rally (AN ) about the recent murder of a young man leaving a party, which provoked extreme right-wing violence in the city of Romans-sur-Isère.

The minister assured the AN deputies that what they have to do is “expel from their ranks” all “identitarians, little Nazis, racists and anti-Semites.” The deputies of the far-right party left the chamber in protest and Marine Le Pen, furious, announced “a complaint” in the coming days against Dupond-Moretti.

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