1. The Dreyfus Affair
In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was falsely convicted of treason. A corrupt legal process and rampant anti-Semitism led to his conviction and exile. The affair split French society into ‘Dreyfusards’ and ‘anti-Dreyfusards,’ but he was cleared in 1906 and given back his military honours. The episode gave the world Emile Zola’s pro-Dreyfus essay “J'accuse”, which is now a by-word for outrage in the face of state injustice.
2. Jobs for the boys
In 2011 Jacques Chirac became the first ex-French head of state to be convicted in court since Marshal Pétain, the leader of the Vichy regime. Chirac was found guilty of diverting public funds and abusing public trust after he paid his own party members for phantom municipal jobs. Chirac was also implicated in the Méry affair in which he was suspected of receiving around €760,000 from Jean-Claude Méry to finance his RPR party. The case was dropped when Méry died of cancer.
3. The Panama affair
Talk about politicians digging themselves into a hole. When an initial attempt to dig the Panama Canal in the late nineteenth century ran into troubled waters, investors lost millions. The government at the time thought the best way to help solve the problem was not to launch a public inquiry, but to accept bribes to keep it quiet. When the public found out, the government fell.
4. The Diamonds Affair
“Diamonds are a French president’s best friend”, or at least they were for former head of state Valery Giscard d’Estaing. In 1973, the then Minister of Finance was offered diamonds by Bokassa I, Emperor of Central Africa. Giscard appeared on television to deny the value of the rocks but Bokassa blew his cover by confirming their worth. The scandal was broken six years later and played a part in Giscard’s loss in the 1981 presidential election.
5. The Cahuzac affair
You could not make this one up. Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac, the man in charge of cracking down on tax cheats is himself accused of tax dodging in 2013. At first he denied the claims, to his boss François Hollande and to the French parliament insisting he had never held a secret bank account abroad. Except a couple of days later he admitted he had told a few white lies and that he had in fact hid hundreds of thousands from the French tax man. In December he was sentenced to four years behind bars for tax evasion, a sentence he immediately appealed.
6. The Bettencourt Affair
The world’s richest woman, a presidential candidate, brown envelopes full of cash – all brought to light by secret tapes made by the butler of l’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, and published by investigative website Mediapart.
It was the political scandal that just kept running and running in France. It led to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy being charged with taking financial advantage of the mentally fragile billionaire at her mansion outside Paris. But the charges were eventually dropped leaving him free to run for president in 2017. Except he failed miserably.
7. The Rainbow Warrior
What to do when your nuclear tests are blocked by pesky environmental activists on a ship? The French government opted to blow up the boat. On July 10th 1985, French secret service agents sank the Rainbow Warrior, owned by Greenpeace, off the coast of New Zealand, drowning a photographer. At first the government denied responsibility for ‘Operation Satanique’, but later that year, then Prime Minister Laurent Fabius admitted the plot, saying “The truth is cruel.” Indeed.
8. The DSK sagas
Do we even need to write about this? Go on then…
Former IMF chief and one-time favourite to be French president, Dominique Strauss Kahn was accused of sexual assault by a New York hotel maid and attempted rape by a French journalist. He was also charged with “aggravated pimping” in a case known as the Carlton Affair that involved prostitutes being delivered to sex parties in Lille, Washington DC and Brussels.
In the sordid trial DSK admitted having a penchant for all-night, executive-level orgies. He was eventually found not guilty of aggravated pimping because prosecutors could not prove that DSK knew the naked women with whom he was frolicking, often roughly, were prostitutes. Nevertheless the damage had been done and a political career left in ruins.
(Femen members jump on DSK's car at his pimping trial in Lille.)
9. Infected blood scandal
In 1991, journalist Anne-Marie Casteret revealed the truly shocking fact that during the 1980s and 1990s, France’s national blood transfusion centre had been knowingly giving haemophiliacs HIV-infected blood.
In 1999, former Prime Minister (and later Foreign Minister under François Hollande) Laurent Fabius was charged with manslaughter but later cleared. Edmond Hervé, Health Minister at the time, was found guilty but never sentenced.
10. And lastly… Ballet orgies
In 1959, it was found that the President of France’s National Assembly, André le Troquer, had been using his official residence for ‘ballet perfomances’ that ended in sado-masochistic orgies, involving girls as young as 14.
The one-armed 73-year-old was convicted of “offences against morality” in a scandal that involved major French businessmen and even a Romanian countess.