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CRIME

Judge in Sarkozy case receives death threat

The row over a corruption probe against Nicolas Sarkozy has escalated after the judge who charged France's former president received a bullet and a death threat in the post.

Judge in Sarkozy case receives death threat
File photo: Phillipe Wojazer/AFP

The letter was sent to Jean-Michel Gentil, the most prominent of three judges investigating the case, the magistrate's union SM revealed in a statement published on its website.

The threatening letter, delivered on Wednesday, was accompanied by blank cartridges.

One of Gentil's colleagues said the letter, mailed to his Bordeaux office, also contained threats against other magistrates. Police had been called in to investigate, the colleague added.

The SM, in its online statement, denounced what it called "insulting statements" made by Sarkozy's inner circle which it said were designed to undermine the work of the judiciary.

It noted too that Sarkozy's own lawyer, Thierry Herzog, had questioned Gentil's impartiality in an interview with Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

The SM said a number of its members were targeted in the letter. Gentil himself is not a member of the union, one colleague told AFP.

Sarkozy's lawyers are attempting to overturn last week's decision by three examining magistrates to charge him in a case that threatens to destroy his hopes of a political comeback.

Gentil last June put his name to an opinion column signed by dozens of legal professionals in Le Monde newspaper, accusing Sarkozy and his predecessor Jacques Chirac of "wishing to protect the corrupt", Herzog pointed out.

Herzog added that five days after signing the column, Gentil had ordered police to search Sarkozy's home, office and his secretary's house.

The decision to place Sarkozy under formal investigation has provoked a furious reaction from his political allies. Already, Gentil is taking one of his critics to court.

Henri Guaino, a former special adviser to Sarkozy and a deputy with his right-wing UMP party said the magistrate's decision to place the former president under formal investigation had "dishonoured justice".

On Wednesday, Socialist Justice Minister Christiane Taubira intervened in the growing row. She asked the magistrates' governing body, the Conseil superieur de la magistrature (CSM), to give its view on what effect the attacks on Gentil were having on the "proper functioning of the judiciary".

Sarkozy himself has repeatedly denied claims he accepted cash-stuffed envelopes from the world's richest woman Liliane Bettencourt to fund his successful 2007 campaign.

Medical experts say the mental faculties of the L'Oreal heiress began to deteriorate in 2006.

On Monday, Sarkozy used his Facebook page to insist he had not taken advantage of Bettencourt. Describing the charges against him as "unfair and unfounded", he vowed to clear his name.

With the right divided by in-fighting, Sarkozy had, in recent weeks, hinted that he was considering a return to the frontline of French politics.

He suggested in one interview that he could be forced to re-enter the fray out of a sense of duty to his country.

Last week's decision by the judges to put him under formal investigation dealt a blow to those ambitions.

Sarkozy could face up to three years in jail, a fine of €375,000 and a five-year ban from public office if convicted.

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POLITICS

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections. 

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