French judges question EU Commissioner Reynders’ ‘impartiality’ in rule-of-law row – POLITICO

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PARIS — French judges are questioning whether or not Didier Reynders, the EU’s justice commissioner, might be neutral in investigating what they are saying are “grave attacks” by the federal government of President Emmanuel Macron on the independence of the French judiciary.

The two largest French judges’ unions, one thought of left-leaning and the opposite apolitical, have raised their considerations with Reynders — a former Belgian overseas minister — earlier than, however now question his impartiality due to his lengthy friendship with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In a letter dated April 21, magistrates heading the 2 unions requested European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to step in and look into the problem. The letter was additionally addressed to Commission Vice President Věra Jourová.

“We are questioning whether Justice Commissioner Reynders can still handle this matter in keeping with his duty of impartiality,” reads the six-page doc obtained by POLITICO, referring to what the judges declare are “grave attacks on the independence of the French judiciary by Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti.”

The letter refers to months of disputes between judges and Dupond-Moretti, who has been accused of concentrating on magistrates investigating Sarkozy in a corruption case and of blocking nominations for judges hostile to the previous president, allegedly for political causes.

Sarkozy endorsed Macron forward of his profitable marketing campaign for reelection as president.

The allegations have ignited a simmering battle between judges in France and the Macron administration, which has pledged to reform the judiciary system.  

“Several [news] publications have shown a level of closeness between Mr. Sarkozy and his entourage on the one hand, and Mr. Reynders and members of his party on the other hand,” reads the letter from the French magistrates. They check with a Belgian newspaper article that coated a 2013 ceremony at which Sarkozy gave Reynders an honorific medal, and stated the 2 males cast a robust 20-year friendship

The judges additionally cite Reynders in relation to an ongoing investigation into the circumstances surrounding the 2010 sale of French helicopters to Kazakhstan when Sarkozy was president. Reynders, then a minister within the Belgian authorities, was suspected of getting used his affect to assist Sarkozy and Kazakh and Uzbek businessmen. A Belgian investigation into alleged corruption across the affair was closed, discovering no proof in opposition to Reynders. An investigation in France stays pending.

Reynders’ workplace didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark for this text. Dupond-Moretti’s workplace declined to touch upon the file. Sarkozy’s workplace wasn’t instantly out there to remark.

A spokesperson for the EU Commission stated it could “not comment nor interfere in individual cases,” including: “We continue to follow developments related to judicial independence and the rule of law in all Member States, including in France, in the context of the rule of law report.”

A simmering dispute

Sarkozy stands on the heart of the row between judges and the Macron authorities, the magistrates’ letter notes. The former president was sentenced final yr to a few years in jail, two of them suspended, for attempting to bribe a choose in alternate for details about an investigation into his 2007 marketing campaign funds. Sarkozy has appealed the sentence.

Wiretapped conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog (additionally given a jail sentence in the identical case) have been central to the case and to Sarkozy’s protection technique, as he accused judges of pursuing a politically motivated witch-hunt.

As it grew to become obvious that Sarkozy and Herzog knew that they had been listened to, prosecutors launched a parallel investigation to scrutinize cellphone data of a number of individuals suspected of getting tipped them off — together with Dupond-Moretti, then a star protection lawyer and pal of Herzog.

At the time, Dupond-Moretti filed a criticism in opposition to the prosecutor’s workplace, arguing that the court docket in command of the investigation had abused its energy. A couple of weeks later, in July 2020, Macron appointed Dupond-Moretti as his new justice minister, placing him in command of the establishment he was suing. 

While he withdrew his criticism, the brand new minister ordered an administrative inquiry into the judges main the case and their boss — which “puts tremendous pressure on the magistrates,” stated Céline Parisot, a type of who signed the letter to the 2 EU commissioners.

A subsequent two-month inquiry discovered nothing unlawful. Dupond-Moretti was later positioned beneath formal investigation over allegations he used his place to settle scores with opponents. A call on that’s anticipated in June

Asked what the judges’ unions sought from the EU Commission, Parisot stated the magistrates had hoped for “something a little more vigorous” than a earlier reply from Reynders, who had stated he could be following the continuing investigations in France.

“Given the facts we have brought to the Commission’s attention … Mr. Reynders … must now assess whether there have been conflicts of interest in a disciplinary matter which was initiated following a case involving a personality he appears to be close to. It seems to us there is, at a minimum, a situation which could reasonably be perceived as a lack of ‘objective’ impartiality,” the magistrates wrote of their letter.

In a video dated October 2020, Dupond-Moretti stated: “Some cannot handle the idea that we may hold three judges accountable. Some accuse me of threatening the independence of the judiciary, but that independence is guaranteed by the constitution, and we are all very attached to it. But it does not accord the right to do whatever and ignore the rules.”

Macron has stood by his choice to maintain Dupond-Moretti in his job, regardless of criticism from the magistrates and opposition events, and has backed his minister’s protection that the judges’ unions are attacking him for political motives.

The judges’ letter was despatched shortly earlier than the second, and remaining, spherical of the presidential election, and a extensively anticipated authorities reshuffle.

The Elysée didn’t reply to a request for remark.

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