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Éric Dupond-Moretti, France’s Justice Minister, Goes on Trial

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Even in France, where political corruption cases abound, it was a sight to behold: the country’s justice minister standing alone before two rows of judges in an ancient, wood-paneled courtroom to defend himself over accusations about his own use — or abuse — of power.

Though he made his name in France as a combative criminal defense lawyer who could ravage witnesses or juries, Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti presented himself on Tuesday as the polar opposite — a new minister deeply honored by the task bestowed upon him, who was learning the ropes, following advice and working hard, and whose sole, preoccupying aim was to succeed in the job. Not, he said with flourish, “with foam on my lips,” hoping to take revenge.

The case is the first time a sitting minister has faced trial in France, and if he is found guilty, it will prove a blow to President Emmanuel Macron, who rose to power on a promise to tighten ethical standards in French politics.

But what makes it even more exceptional is that, as justice minister, Mr. Dupond-Moretti is being tried in the system he continues to oversee. Many of the more than 20 witnesses on the docket to testify over the 10-day trial, which opened on Monday, are sitting judges or top legal officials who in theory, should ultimately answer to him.

Among the assigned judges are political rivals from opposition parties, dressed for the occasion in black robes and white ruffled collars, sitting beneath the golden chandeliers in the very courtroom where Philippe Pétain, the French president who collaborated with Nazi regime during World War II, was tried and condemned for treason some eight decades ago.

The charges against Mr. Dupond-Moretti are not nearly of that order.

They involve two separate incidents, dating from soon after his appointment as justice minister in July 2020. His appointment itself was deemed “a declaration of war against the judiciary,” as he “despises judges” and “does not hesitate to insult them,” the president of the country’s biggest union of judges declared on national radio at the time.

In one case, Mr. Dupond-Moretti launched a disciplinary inquiry into three magistrates of the national financial prosecutor’s office who had ordered the police to pore over his own phone records when he was still a lawyer.

Ostensibly, Mr. Dupond-Moretti’s office launched the investigation in an effort to determine the identity of a possible mole in a separate case involving former President Nicolas Sarkozy, though a judicial review had already cleared them of any wrongdoing.

In the second incident, Mr. Dupond-Moretti began administrative proceedings against a judge, Édouard Levrault, who had investigated one of his former clients. In that case, too, Mr. Levrault was eventually cleared of any disciplinary breach.

“Even if these judges weren’t good judges — maybe they didn’t work well, maybe they should have been sanctioned — that’s not the problem,” said Paul Cassia, vice-president of Anticor, a nonprofit anticorruption association that lodged a complaint to trigger the court case, along with three judges unions. “The problem is a minister can’t use his authority in a matter that involves his personal interest.”

Standing alone at a glass podium set in the palm of the room, surrounded by rows of judges and spectators, Mr. Dupond-Moretti argued on Tuesday that he was following the advice of his office on files he had inherited from his predecessor.

If found guilty, he could face five years’ imprisonment and a fine of half a million euros. He could also be barred from public office.

Few, however, expect that to happen.

The court hearing the case, called the Court of Justice of the Republic, was specially created in 1993 to try government cabinet members for offenses they are alleged to have committed while carrying out their official roles.

Since then, it has sat for less than a dozen cases. Made up of three professional judges, and 12 lawmakers — half from the Senate, half from the National Assembly — the court has long been criticized for both being too politically partisan and too lenient against fellow politicians.

It has never sentenced someone to prison, and often waved even suspended sentences.

In one famous example, the court acquitted former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua in two damning cases of embezzlement, one involving a Corsican casino license he’d granted to friends in exchange for financing his political activities. It did find the former minister-turned-senator complicit in the misuse of corporate funds in connection with a government-backed company that exported police equipment, but in light of his age and the service he’d rendered to his country, gave him a one-year suspended sentence.

Meanwhile, one of the men granted the casino license was convicted by another court and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, two of which were suspended, and a fine of 150,000 euros.

“The jurisdiction is very political because it will take into account factors that ordinary courts do not take into account,” said Cécile Guérin-Bargues, author of “Trying Politicians? The Court of Justice of the Republic.”

The specter of parliamentarians taking a vow of objectivity and donning black robes to judge a sitting minister in their own party, or one who they sparred with politically, has also raised fierce criticism in the country for years.

“A judge shouldn’t be biased against the person they are judging, and that’s the case — the 12 parliamentarians are biased,” said Mr. Cassia, who is also a law professor at Université Paris 1. “Whatever verdict they deliver, they will be deemed biased for or against Dupond-Moretti. That’s not good.”

While it is not constitutionally required, in most cases where politicians are charged criminally, they step down during the process. Mr. Dupond-Moretti has refused to follow suit, and the government has backed that decision, even renaming him to his powerful post after a cabinet shuffle last July, long after the legal procedure had started.

“The image of justice won’t improve from this process, nor will the image of politics,” said Ms. Guérin-Bargues. “No one will win.”

The case has already been embarrassing for President Macron, who promised in the past to do away with the specialized court.

Gendarmes searched the Ministry of Justice offices on the elegant Place Vendôme, and former Prime Minister Jean Castex is expected to take the stand.

Not known for his restraint, Mr. Dupond-Moretti has declared the case a malicious attempt by vengeful judges unions to humiliate him and push him to resign.

“I feel I have been abused,” he told the courtroom on Tuesday.

Mr. Dupond-Moretti was known as a swashbuckling criminal lawyer who won scores of acquittals but who also intimidated witnesses and even judges.

Among the long list of clients he has defended are Jérôme Kerviel, the rogue trader who nearly brought down a top French bank; Karim Benzema, a star soccer player; and Abdelkader Merah, whose brother Mohammed killed three French paratroopers, a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in southwestern France in 2012.

To say he loves the spotlight would be an understatement. In 2019, the year before he was tapped as minister, Mr. Dupond-Moretti appeared on a Parisian stage in a one-man play about his life.

He also revels in confrontation. In March, during a public session in the National Assembly, where ministers respond to parliamentarians’ questions from the front rows, Mr. Dupond-Moretti famously flipped an opposition lawmaker the finger.

Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle and Aurelien Breeden contributed research.

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