READING about the latest French political scandals, what can one say but 'Ooooolala!'? Our own Charlie Haughey's colourful escapades pale by comparison with those of the late President Francois Mitterrand, 12 of whose aides are now in a Parisian courtroom charged with privacy-violations.
Sure, Charlie authorised the phone-tapping of a few journalists in an effort to plug leaks, but that was bargain-basement stuff. As President, Mitterrand had a team in the presidential palace bugging the phones of lawyers, writers, businessmen and film stars as well as humble hacks, partly to keep secret the existence of his illegitimate daughter, partly to keep an eye on his enemies, and partly for the fun of it.
Oh, and let's not forget his son, Jean Christophe. As an adviser on African affairs to his father's government he was popularly known as 'Papa-m'a-dit' ('Daddy told me'), but with no papa to protect him, his life is grim. He too has been in a courtroom this month: judgment is due in December on his alleged €1.75m tax-fraud. Separately under investigation for money-laundering, illegal arms trafficking and taking bribes, he's broke and on bail of €750,000, provided by his relatives. To help fund the fines he is expected to incur, his mother has just raised €80,000 by selling a collection of designer furniture, including her husband's leather-bound bed.
Recent French presidents have been a dodgy lot. Mitterrand's predecessor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing (1974-81), merrily went on hunting trips with Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic. Not only was he unperturbed by allegations that this monster actually ate some of the children he had murdered, but he happily accepted from him a bag of valuable diamonds. Not that Giscard - the man who has just been midwife to the European constitution - thinks he has anything to be ashamed of: even by French standards, his arrogance and self-importance is Olympian.
President Chirac, Mitterrand's successor, is never happier than when preaching from a lofty pulpit placed on the high moral ground: no-one listening to him talking about Iraq would realise the corrupt nature of French links with Saddam Hussein. It is only because of presidential immunity that he has escaped investigation over several financial scandals. In January, his one-time prime minister, Alain Juppe, was given a suspended prison sentence and banned from electoral office for ten years for his part in raising revenue illegally for their party.
But back to Mitterrand, the most skilful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all. He began his political life as a right-wing Catholic, worked for the Vichy government but hedged his bets by helping the Resistance, became a socialist when he saw a niche in the political market, and then, as President, turned back into a conservative. Of his corrupt associates, Roland Dumas, once his Foreign Minister, became the most notorious, when he was jailed for his part in a riveting scandal involving Elf Aquitaine, the giant oil firm, who bribed Dumas with the help of his mistress.
It takes a long time to catch up with venal French politicians, not least because of the privacy laws. It is believed that during his time as President, from 1981 to 1995, Mitterrand had 62 mistresses, several of whom were well-known political journalists. And though the chatterati knew that his senior mistress, Anne Pingeot, lived in a government-funded apartment with their daughter, Mazarine, no-one wrote about them until in 1994, a year before he died of the cancer he had concealed for 14 years, it suited Mitterrand to have Paris Match publish photographs of the teenage Mazarine so he could at last acknowledge her publicly.
The most important women in Mitterrand's life certainly lived up to the national stereotype. His widow, Danielle, is an elegant Parisian intellectual and international human-rights activist. He was believed to have had 62 mistresses, several of them political journalists. The chief mistress is an art historian and Mazarine read philosophy at the Sorbonne and capitalised on her notoriety in 1999 by publishing a novel. I will not be reading this tale of Agathe, who with her boyfriend Victor, forms the nucleus of a bohemian intellectual elite; they are allowed to take other lovers 'because their fidelity to each other is untouchable'.
According to testimony from Gilles Menage, once Mitterrand's principal private secretary, the fidelity of 'the whole state mechanism' to the President was indeed untouchable: as Le Monde put it, his was 'a regime intoxicated by espionage to the point of obsession'. Under the pretext of 'security measures', what was supposed to be an anti-terrorist unit at the Elysee tapped the telephones of anyone and everyone who interested the President.
Mitterrand got away with his abuses of power. But the doggedness of one investigating magistrate has ensured at least that his reputation will suffer. Maybe Chirac will take note and mend his ways.