What’s the French for gombeen?

A left-wing politician backed by an alliance of greens, socialists and communists has vowed to end a culture of bribery and envelopes stuffed with cash. His opponent is the puppet of a local senator accused of buying votes, under police investigation.

All the familiar electioneering tactics are in play by the leftist rainbow coalition: mass leafleting and postering, door to door canvassing, even a sing-along in the local community hall last Wednesday.

There are even references to the right-wing politician’s “mafia system”.

It could be any town in Ireland, but this is Corbeil-Essonnes, on the outskirts of Paris, a town of 41,000 people, not much larger than Drogheda. The story is worth recounting, if only to dispel an oft-heard myth that politics in Ireland is somehow uniquely corrupt.

The left-wing challenger is Bruno Piriou, his opponent is Jean-Pierre Bechter, an employee of Serge Dassault, multi-millionaire publisher of Le Figaro.

On Dassault’s side: money. Lots of it. Sworn statements from several voters that they were given bribes by the senator led officials to declare Dassault’s election as mayor of the town invalid because of “elements establishing the existence of gifts of money.”

Dassault stepped down, nominating Bechter in his place. Now, the council of state has demanded a fresh election, since Bechter has no mandate and is so close to Dassault.

Piriou claims Dassault has neglected the town. “Clientelism has not only allowed Dassault to keep the town for 15 years, he has also generated delinquency,” he said. “The fact is that the campaign is happening against a background of violence.”

Asked by Le Monde why voters should choose his successor, Dassault sounded like a French version of Jackie Healy-Rae as he listed his achievements: hospitals and building projects.

“I have obtained from Philippe Douste-Blazy and from Xavier Bertrand (former health ministers) their help to get a new hospital built, which should open in 2011,” he said.

“Without me, Altis, a company which employs over 1,000 in the town, would not have been saved.

“I convinced Yazid Sabeg, the commissioner for diversity and equal opportunities, to invest €40m.

“I obtained a lot of money from the national agency for urban renewal thanks to Jean Louis Borloo. This allowed me to have 17 high rise towers demolished and build smaller apartment blocks.”

Dassault dismissed the findings of the council of state that voters were bribed as “lies”, and explained the ‘Dassault system’ to Le Monde: “What people want is that you look after them, just like children. The mayor is the father of the town.”

“My objective is to win as early as next Sunday, because there could be lots of cash handed out between the two rounds,” Piriou said last week.

In French elections, if one candidate does not get 50 percent of the votes, all but the top two candidates are eliminated and a second vote is held the following Sunday.

Piriou (45.24 percent) and Bechter (47.24 percent) are neck and neck after yesterday’s first round. The eliminated third candidate, Carlo Da Silva, has endorsed Piriou, and called on those who abstained first time round to come out next Sunday.

“The Dassault system has run out of steam,” according to Mourad Khier Saadi, who once worked for the billionaire industrialist. “Dassault favoured individuals but failed to bring solutions to all the people. By promising an aid, or a job, or a house, he discouraged many youths from working because they say they can benefit from all advantages by going to the mayor, even if that meant keeping the pressure up by burning cars.”