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France

Socialist's vote-buying reveals Marseille corruption

© AFP

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2013-05-23

A French MP was sentenced to jail this week for spending €740,000 of public funds on vote-buying in her Marseille constituency. Yet Sylvie Andrieux is being viewed as a martyr in Marseille, where corruption seems to come with the territory.

Tough-talking and colourful, 51-year-old Sylvie Andrieux had been performing on the political stage of France’s second-largest city for decades. But on Wednesday, the popular Socialist MP was handed a three-year jail sentence and banned from serving in office for five years after she was found guilty of spending taxpayers’ money on vote-buying.

Between 2005 and 2008, during which time she served as both MP and county councillor in the southern Bouches-du-Rhône region, Andrieux is said to have siphoned off some 740,000 euros of public funds. According to prosecutors, Andrieux knowingly allocated grants to phoney associations, which were fashioned to look like social outfits for disadvantaged youths or deprived neighbourhoods. Those funds were then used to sweeten voters in return for their support at the polls.

According to journalist Frédéric Legrand of Marseille-based website Chez Albert, these so-called sweeteners would have ranged from a place at the local crèche to the promise of a council house. “Everybody here knows that in order to get social housing you need to ‘know’ a politician,” he told FRANCE. “In turn, politicians know that if they don’t give anything to their electorate, they won’t get voted for.”

‘Institutionalised corruption’

Legrand suggested that far from acting alone, Andrieux was embroiled in an age-old and inextricable system. “Corruption in politics is almost institutionalised here,” he said. “Andrieux was acting no differently from any other politician.”

In what could be viewed as recognition of such a claim, Andrieux’s peers from the region – even those of rival parties – were quick to support her following Wednesday’s sentence, which her lawyers appealed and described as “sickening”. Andrieux, who will be forced to pay a fine of 100,000 euros on top of her three-year jail sentence (two of which are suspended), claims she didn’t know what was going on.

“I am shocked and dumbfounded by this unjust decision,” Socialist county councillor Garo Hovsépian told France Télevisions on Thursday. “Andrieux is paying for others, paying for the poisonous climate there is in France at the moment.”

Overseas MP Thierry Mariani, who has been on the Bouches-du-Rhône political scene as long as Andrieux but with the rival UMP party, also criticised the ruling. “Sylvie Andrieux is paying heavily for something that she didn’t act alone in,” he said. “She’s an easy scapegoat in a system where there are most certainly many more people involved.”

Only locals from the far-right National Front party (FN), which has pledged to tackle political corruption as part of its 2014 municipal election campaign, condemned the Socialist MP. “We [at the FN] have been denouncing this system for a long time,” said county councillor Stéphane Ravier, who was beaten by Andrieux in last June’s legislative election by just one percentage point. “I just hope voters won’t forget this incident,” he added.

On a nationwide scale, Andrieux’s colleagues were less forgiving. Socialist Party leader Harlem Désir suggested she “take leave from the party” pending her appeal, or risk suspension.

Expenses scandal at the fish market

For France’s ruling party, the scandal couldn’t have come at a worse time. Just last month another high-profile Socialist from the same region was taken in for questioning over similar allegations, in a case that has been plaguing both the party and the region for almost a decade. Jean-Noël Guérini, senator and president of the Bouches-du-Rhône county council, is suspected of accepting bribes, influence peddling, and conspiring to commit a crime.

The Corsica-born MP, along with his notorious brother Alexandre, is said to have used retirement homes, schools and fire stations to divert public funds. Known locally as the “Guérini brothers”, the pair are suspected of links with the mafia and have been under investigation since 2005. In April this year, Jean-Noël Guérini was brought in for questioning by police but suffered a cardiac arrest during the interrogation and was taken to hospital, leaving detectives hanging.

In another embarrassing affair for the Socialists – this one at the other end of the country – a former MP was found guilty of diverting public funds and fined 30,000 euros. Ex-mayor of Liévin (Pas-de-Calais, north), Jean-Pierre Kucheida, or “Kuche”, was found on Monday to have spent some 70,000 euros of taxpayers’ money on private purchases. His shopping list included a trip to a fish market in Corsica and a “working lunch” in a restaurant some 800 kilometres from his office. Kucheida claimed that he had mixed up his credit cards.

Vote-buying ‘all over France’

The recent string of revelations reflects a change in attitude towards political transparency in France, where elected officials have long held on to an entitled sense of immunity. In April this year, President François Hollande forced his entire cabinet to publicly declare their assets after his budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, was discovered harbouring €600,000 euros in an offshore bank account in Switzerland.

But while many would dismiss the Andrieux vote-buying affair as something typical of Marseille – where a history of banditry has left the city with an unshakeable reputation for delinquency – for local journalist Legrand, the problem is not endemic to the south of France. “This is going on all over the country,” he argued. “The only difference in Marseille is that politicians don’t bother to cover their tracks properly.” Legrand attributes this carelessness to a “general acceptance of corruption” in the region.

“Andrieux only got caught out because she left a piece of paper lying around that she shouldn’t have,’ he said. “But the general public doesn’t blame her for it; they are more shocked by her sentence than her crime. Once her five-year ban is over, she will probably be voted back into power.”

Date created : 2013-05-23

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