Bernard Petit, the head of the Paris Police Judiciaire (PJ) criminal investigation unit, was charged and suspended Thursday over allegations he tipped off fellow officer Christian Prouteau, the former chief of France's elite GIGN counterterrorism force, during a criminal investigation. Petit's indictment is just the latest controversy in a wave of scandals that have rocked the Paris PJ, often referred to as "36, Quai des Orfèvres" or just "36" thanks to its prestigious address on the banks of the Seine in the heart of Paris.
According to the allegations, Petit and three of his colleagues leaked confidential information to Prouteau in October 2014 while Prouteau was being investigated in a case that involved notorious French fraudster Christophe Rocancourt. Dubbed the "Conman to the Stars," Rocancourt scammed wealthy people by masquerading as an aristocrat, a film producer, and a venture capitalist. He'd approached his friend Prouteau in 2014 for help naturalizing two undocumented Moroccan sisters as part of a scheme to sell fraudulent residency permits.
According to the General Inspectorate of the National Police (IGPN) — also known as the police's police — Petit and three accomplices allegedly tipped off Prouteau ahead of his hearing, giving him key information about the ongoing case against Rocancourt.
The two judges presiding over Prouteau's hearing in October 2014 became suspicious when Proteau displayed an abnormal level of familiarity with the details of the case. Prouteau was wiretapped, and it didn't take long for authorities to find out that Petit was feeding him highly confidential information via an intermediary named Philippe Lemaitre, another police officer.
On Wednesday, the IGPN searched Petit's office at dawn and arrested Petit, his chief of staff Richard Atlan, police union chief Joaquim Masanet, and Lemaitre. Atlan, Lemaitre, and Petit were charged Thursday, while Masanet was remanded for further questioning.
Rocancourt, who has in the past boasted fictitious family ties to Italian actress Sophia Loren and fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, and who has passed himself off as a champion boxer, has also been linked to yet another recent scandal that has rocked 36. According to French daily Le Monde, Rocancourt was being questioned Friday as part of an investigation into 52 kilos of seized cocaine that went missing from the Paris drug squad vaults last August. Days after the theft was discovered, an officer from the squad was charged and arrested. According to reports, Rocancourt allegedly met the convicted officer in jail while serving time for the residency permit scam, and may have colluded with him to launder vast sums of money.
These are just the latest scandals that have tarnished the reputation of 36. Last April, two officers were charged with rape after a Canadian tourist filed allegations against them. And in December 2013, former head of the PJ Christian Flaesh was fired by then-Interior Minister Manuel Valls for allegedly giving a heads-up to Brice Hortefeux, a politician questioned as part of an investigation into Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 campaign funding.
Claude Cancès started at 36 as a young inspector 35 years ago, climbing the ranks and ending up head of the PJ. Speaking to VICE News on Friday, Cancès explained that the PJ has always abided by its own rules.
"Sometimes, for reasons of state, you have to know how to step one foot out of the circle of the law — but never both," said Cancès, who recalled allowing his men to "step out of the little crown [i.e., Paris, the area over which the PJ has jurisdiction] in order to pursue criminals."
"Eugène-François Vidocq, who was appointed head of the Security Brigade in 1811, and is widely known as the father of the PJ, was a criminal," says Jean-Marc Berlière, an expert on French police forces. Berlière explained that when Vidocq was ousted in 1830 and his team was "replaced with a group of honest men," people were outraged. "The new guys didn't speak the language of the criminals," Berlière said. "The very mission of the PJ requires officers to be close to the criminal underworld. It's a thin line between professionalism and lack of professionalism."
While Cancès and Berlière both acknowledge the PJ's idiosyncrasies, neither thinks the organization is overrun with dishonest cops. Reacting to the latest scandal, Cancès said he was shocked to hear about Petit, whom he described as "a very shy and reserved man."
For Berlière, the "increase in cases involving 36 are not indicative of an increase in crooked cops." On the contrary, he told VICE News, "the interior ministry, the IGPN, and the security forces are probably more rigorous now. Fellow officers don't tolerate these kinds of offenses, and have no qualms about alerting the authorities."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Photo via Wikimedia