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French ex-PM guilty of favouritism, but escapes penalty

The European Union's top court on Tuesday found former French premier Edith Cresson guilty of favouritism when she was an EU official in the 1990s, but refused to cut her pension as a penalty.

The court had been urged to halve Cresson's monthly pension of 3,700 euros (4,700 dollars) over the affair, which was part of a wider corruption scandal which brought down the EU executive in 1999.

"The court declares that Mrs. Edith Cresson acted in breach of her obligations as a European Commissioner," the European Court of Justice said in its ruling in the long-running case.

But it added: "In the light of the circumstances of the case, the court holds that the finding of that breach constitutes, in itself, an appropriate penalty."

Cresson, who served as research and education commissioner in Brussels from 1995 to 1999, was notably accused of hiring a dentist from her home town, Rene Berthelot, as an advisor, despite being warned it was against EU rules.

The scandal surrounding Cresson, who was also French prime minister in 1991 and 1992, helped spark the collective resignation in March 1999 of the entire European Commission under then president Jacques Santer.

The Luxembourg-based court's advocate general, Leendert Geelhoed, had recommended in February that "A pecuniary sanction is appropriate," specifically proposing that the court "deprive Mrs. Cresson of 50 percent of her pension rights as of the date of the court judgement."

One EU lawmaker, Richard Ashworth, immediately criticised the ruling, saying Cresson should not receive "a penny more from European taxpayers.

"This decision sends out the wrong signal. It says the European Union tolerates people who abuse their position and defraud European taxpayers," he said in a statement.

The European Commission, which took the case to the ECJ seeking to clear the air amid persistent criticism, welcomed the court's ruling -- and dismissed a barrage of questions about whether the ruling really puts the affair to bed.

"The commission is delighted that the Court of Justice has clarified the obigations of the commission," said chief commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger.

"We feel that this ruling brings a final end to what did actually cause a political crisis at the time and rather seriously damaged the image of the commission," he said.

While asserting its desire to be totally transparent over the issue, the commission spokesman had to be asked repeatedly before he would reveal the size of Cresson's monthly EU pension payments: roughly 20 percent of her 18,300 euros-per-month salary when she was in Brussels, or 3,660 euros.

Cresson is no stranger to controversy -- apart from her EU cronyism, she is remembered for some famous gaffes.

In 1991, after being named premier by then-president Francois Mitterrand, she declared "one Englishman in four is a homosexual" and said "the Japanese live like ants... (whereas the French) want to live like human beings."

Scandals over AIDS-tainted blood transfusions, campaign fraud accusations and the unexpected arrival in France of Palestinian extremist George Habash also fueled plummeting poll ratings, and she stood down less than a year later.

Judgment of the Court of Justice in Case C-432/04 - Commission / Cresson (pdf)
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