I see that commentators I respect, such as Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol, are calling for President Bush to pardon Scooter Libby. They make a very persuasive case, but I would be surprised if a presidential pardon is forthcoming—not, at any rate, until the legal process has run its full course. In an Anglo-Saxon democracy under the rule of law, it is always potentially damaging for a head of state to grant pardons, especially to friends, associates, or those who have served under him. Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.
In practice, this means that pardons are high-risk politics. The pardoning of Richard Nixon, however justifiable, severely damaged Gerald Ford politically. If Tony Blair were to be indicted for the “cash for honors” affair, he would have to resign; if he were convicted, he could expect no pardon. Even if the Queen were minded to grant him one, it would be political suicide for Blair’s successor to ask her for it.
In France, however, they do things differently. Compare the Libby case to that of Jacques Chirac. While in office, Mr. Chirac enjoys full presidential immunity. By announcing on Sunday that he would not seek re-election for a third term, the French president has, in theory, laid himself open to prosecution after he steps down in May. There may then be a brief window of opportunity during which the authorities could bring a case against the former president for any one of the dozens of corruption scandals that have tarnished his career ever since he was mayor of Paris in the 1980′s and 1990′s.
Chirac’s former prime minister, Alain Juppé, is only the most senior of several aides to have been convicted on serious charges. Last month Michel Roussin, Chirac’s chief of staff while he was mayor, had his appeal against a four-year suspended prison sentence quashed. Roussin, whom Chirac later promoted to minister, was convicted of running a six-year scam whereby politicians received kickbacks from public-school service contracts. The corruption that flourished under Chirac’s nose was on a huge scale, ranging from vote-rigging to putting hundreds of party cronies on the public payroll. There is plenty of evidence that Chirac enriched himself and his family, too, though he has always insisted that he was entitled to help himself to various slush funds.
None of these city-hall scandals, despite being public knowledge throughout his presidency, has deterred Chirac from provoking fresh accusations, notably over his connections with the regime of Saddam Hussein. And only last year he was implicated in the Clearstream affair, an attempt to smear his rival Nicolas Sarkozy.
It is true, however, that Mr. Chirac’s corruption scandals pale in comparison to those of his two immediate predecessors. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing notoriously accepted gifts of diamonds from the Central African Republic’s military dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa, while François Mitterrand not only protected his cronies, like Maurice Papon, from their Vichy pasts, but was implicated in several murky deaths, including the dubious suicide of François de Grossouvre. Neither Giscard nor Mitterrand was ever brought to account.
Even so, it is interesting that Jacques Chirac feels confident that no charges against him will be brought once he leaves office. Could it have something to do with the fact that he recently appointed Laurent Le Mesle, his personal legal adviser, to the post of chief prosecutor in Paris? Presumably the president expects that Le Mesle can be relied upon to protect his patron. All the chief prosecutor has to do is to sit tight for one month after Mr. Chirac leaves the Elysée Palace in May. If this impending bill, aimed at writing into law the de facto immunity sitting French presidents enjoy, passes, any charges relating to crimes committed while Chirac was president would have to be brought against him by June, after which he will be immune from prosecution. No pardon, no embarrassment. The French political elite certainly knows how to look after its own. L’état, c’est moi—et la justice aussi.