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Tough French judge takes on a new trial

Jean-Louis Bruguiere, long his nation's top counter-terror official, enters politics, running for an assembly seat.

June 10, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

VILLENEUVE-SUR-LOT, FRANCE — During a quarter-century in which he has made his mark on European law enforcement, Jean-Louis Bruguiere has taken on all kinds of adventures and adversaries.

The anti-terrorism magistrate flew by helicopter into the Sahara in 1989 to inspect the wreckage of a Paris-bound passenger jet blown up by Libyan spies, killing 170 people. In 1987, he escaped a grenade that Corsican militants rigged to the door of his Paris home. He pursued the trail of Al Qaeda operatives from Sarajevo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to Montreal to Los Angeles, helping U.S. prosecutors convict an Algerian of a 1999 plot to bomb LAX.

But now Bruguiere has charged into a different kind of adventure: politics. His candidacy for the National Assembly in today's legislative election is the latest chapter in a swashbuckling career that has earned him admiration, fear and resentment.

On a recent gray morning, the square-jawed 64-year-old was out campaigning among shoppers, merchants and rustics. He roamed beneath the medieval arches of his family hometown, a city of 30,000 on the Lot River surrounded by vineyards, prune orchards, castles and windmills. Billing itself as "the happiest place in France," the southern region has drawn an influx of wealthy expatriates, including Britons who commute to jobs in London from the airport in nearby Bergerac.

Trailed by two lanky police bodyguards more accustomed to hurrying him into his car than taking small-town strolls, the judge pressed the flesh with a determined grin and a simple self-introduction: "Monsieur Bruguiere."

The amiable white-haired owner of a linen store, Jean-Louis Chabrier, told him: "My mother is 97 years old, and her memory is still sharp, and she always says: 'Judge Bruguiere, why, I knew him when he was in short pants.' "

"I'm not surprised," Bruguiere said, "I spent all my summers here."

Like many Frenchmen, the lifelong resident of Paris retains a bond to his country roots, to the birthplace of his paternal ancestors, six generations of judges. Bruguiere owns a stone farmhouse with a barn and a tractor on which he likes to chug around his fields. He frequents the best shop in town for the regional specialty of confit de canard, duck preserved in its own fat, and is a staunch member of a local vintners society.

When Chabrier asked Bruguiere about his prospects in today's election, the candidate sounded prudent, saying, "It looks quite good, but we have to keep fighting all the way to the end."

Bruguiere has taken a leave of absence to run under the banner of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement led by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who knows the judge from his own tenure as Interior minister. Sarkozy won this rural district in last month's presidential election. His party leads in national polls for the legislative election.

Bruguiere's campaign slogan promises "to give back to this land the strength it gave me." Citing his law-and-order credentials, he vows to deal with a rising crime problem, though the streets look less than mean.

"It's hard to believe, but people don't like to walk around here at night anymore," he said, touring a reputedly dodgy area as a bearded man in sunglasses looked on from the entrance of a Moroccan restaurant. "This candidacy has been an interesting experience. After having a global perspective, now I am dealing with a microcosm."

Detractors call him a parachuting carpetbagger. His main rival, Jerome Cahuzac of the Socialist Party, filed a lawsuit alleging that Bruguiere's government post made him ineligible for office, but lost. The cameras of the TF1 network recently followed Cahuzac, who is mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Lot, as he campaigned at a table of elderly card-players in a cafe. When one bespectacled man said he did not know Bruguiere, the candidate chortled: "Of course you don't: You're not a terrorist!"

The two candidates are expected to face each other in a June 17 runoff.

The indignities of the campaign are part of a hard transition for Bruguiere after years of rarefied power. Under the Napoleonic legal system, investigative magistrates perform the roles of prosecutors and judges. They control investigations and decide whether to charge and jail suspects. They do not answer to voters, Justice ministers, presidents or anyone else. And by turning cases over to prosecutors for trial, they distance themselves from the outcome.

Bruguiere's stature has been magnified by France's tough anti-terrorism apparatus. He has deployed police and intelligence services as he sees fit and roamed the world cultivating high-powered allies. Although a neophyte candidate, he is no stranger to the feuds and intrigues of a secretive world of security services.

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