Zuma's Fate May Lie in Elegant French Hands
The political fate of deputy president Jacob Zuma could lie in the hands of a small, elegantly dressed woman in an office in the chic Opera district of Paris.
If the French government gives the go-ahead, examining magistrate Edith Boizette will help South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, or Scorpions, with their probe into French multinational Thales, possibly providing information needed to charge Zuma.
The Scorpions have accused Thales of bribing Zuma in their bid for an arms contract.
As the head of the finance section of the Paris magistrature, Boizette receives some 12 requests a month from foreign countries for judicial assistance. Many can be dealt with quickly. But sometimes, as the Thales case, she prefers to seek the approval of the French minister of Justice before starting an investigation, because French law stipulates that judicial assistance to foreign countries must not damage the interest of France.
Whether meeting the Scorpions' request could damage French interests is a decision Boizette prefers not to make.
"Since this involves an armaments company, we may find information which would not be appropriate to pass on to a foreign country," she said.
At the moment the request is being studied by the minister of justice, who will probably consult other departments including defence, economic affairs and foreign affairs.
If the minister gives the green light, Boizette will get going immediately. A veteran of many tough investigations, she is not troubled by the possible repercussions of her work. Since taking over the financial section of the magistrature in 1988, she has tackled high-profile cases involving insider trading at aluminium giant Pechiney, the financing of president Jaques Chirac's party, and the financial affairs of businessman and soccer chief Bernard Tapie, who lost his place as a cabinet minister after her investigation in 1994.
More recently she has made headlines in France for her work on fraudulent imports of beef from countries affected by "mad cow" disease, a file opened in 1996 which has still not been closed.
The desk in her spacious third-floor office in a small street off Paris's "grand boulevards" is cluttered with documents from some of the 50-odd cases she is investigating.
Examining magistrates in France have wide powers - "somewhere between a prosecutor and a policeman", says Boizette.
As a "super investigator", an examining magistrate can order the search of premises and can summons, detain or arrest people.
In her task Boizette can call on a specialist staff at 14 magistrates and can also delegate part of the work to the police.
Once the investigation is complete, the dossier is sent back to the country which requested the information, via diplomatic channels in th case of a foreign request, or passed on to the courts in France.
In the course of a career spanning 27 years, Boizette says she has learned to be tenacious, to work hard - 10 hours a day- and above all to be thorough.
After studying in Paris she worked in the provinces and in the French Antilles, returning to the capital in 1986 and taking over the financial section two years later.
She likes the challenge of financial investigations.
"The dossiers are technical and complex and the people involved are different. It's harder work."
She won't talk about the content of the Scorpions' request, beyond saying that it concerned further "details" of information she gathered after their first request, in 2001, which led to the search of the Thales offices in Paris.
In that case, she said she did not refer to the request to the ministry of justice and was able to act quickly.
She is ready to move again, once the minister gives the go-ahead.
Until then, she - and South Africa - will just have to wait.
With acknowledgements to Alide Dasnois and the Sunday Argus.