PARTY officials hastily draw in the iron shutters of their Paris headquarters. A magistrate and a dozen police have entered the building to search for documents on illegal financial dealings. Reporters converge on the last open window.
Another French political party is under siege over corruption allegations.
This Nov. 10 search of France's Republican Party headquarters is one of more than 100 criminal investigations of French politicians and businessmen that have touched many political parties. Seaside villas, Paris apartments, dubious public-works contracts, and secret bank accounts provide grist for crusading magistrates and receptive journalists.
Similar scandals helped sweep the Socialist Party out of office in last year's parliamentary elections. Now Prime Minister Edouard Balladur's conservative government is finding its own credibility rattled. It lost its third minister to corruption allegations last month.
``There is a crisis in the French political class,'' says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life. ``The financial scandals broke the lines of confidence between people and the political class.''
French politicians are taking note. On Tuesday, the National Assembly (lower house of Parliament) voted to end corporate financing of political parties and candidates. The Senate has yet to vote on the proposal.
``This vote marks a significant change in the way we've done business,'' says Olivier Challan Belval, adviser to the Assembly's special task force on political corruption. ``The businesses that have been most active in financing politics have been those that have public contracts. Even when the businesses are honest, the contributions give the impression of corruption. We've been living in a terrible hypocrisy.''
The nation's first moves against corruption did not correct this impression. Reform laws in 1988 and '90 authorized political contributions from corporations and individuals.
After a slew of scandals, however, the National Commission on Campaign and Political Finance (CCFP) released last month the nation's first public accounting of how political parties are financed, including corporate contributions. According to CCFP officials, French political parties received about $280 million in contributions, of which $116 million was public funding in 1993.
``The '88 and '90 legislation represents an evolution in French society,'' says CCFP secretary general Jean Fuerxer. ``It wasn't just partisan. One was proposed by a conservative government; the other, by a Socialist one.''
With corporate contributions forbidden, parties and candidates may look for funding elsewhere. Conservative deputy Patrick Ollier said he feared the ban on corporate giving could encourage ``a system of pressure on private individuals, through mailings or telephone marketing.''
In the United States, much corporate funding for candidates and parties is channeled through individuals, says Joshua Goldstein of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
The French commission could not track such a shift in strategy. ``We don't publish the names of citizens who contribute to candidates or political parties,'' says Mr. Fuerxer. ``Contributions are included in tax files, but without the names of recipients, so that the administration won't know your political beliefs.''
Several of the water and public works companies cited in corruption charges are not waiting for new laws. They are quietly giving notice that they will not finance campaigns or parties, even if such contributions remain legal after the next wave of reform.