Eva Joly shocked some of her admirers in Iceland when she said a few weeks ago that Iceland should join the European Union. For many of Joly’s fans this was not acceptable. For one and a half years, Eva Joly has enjoyed a heroine status in Iceland. In a country sadly lacking in trust, she has been a force of almost unquestionable moral authority. Now she is running for president in France, but if rules allowed she could more easily become president of Iceland.
One of the results of the economic collapse in Iceland is a total lack of confidence in most institutions: the Parliament, the banks, the civil service. There was talk of getting foreign specialists to help this scarcely populated nation sort out the mess it had gotten itself into—it obviously lacked experience. Not much happened.
An Overnight Sensation
Eva Joly came to give her opinion on the collapse in a television interview in March 2009. As is her custom, she was extremely blunt. She claimed that the office of the special prosecutor, founded to investigate criminality within the collapsed banks, was a joke. The prosecutor himself was a totally inexperienced sheriff from a small town in the west of Iceland, appointed because nobody else wanted the job; he had no knowledge of white collar crime, and a staff of only three people.
Eva Joly was an overnight sensation. At first the government wasn’t happy with her criticism, but she was adopted by the general public. Pressure on the government mounted. A few days after the interview, Joly was appointed as a special advisor to the prosecutor. She brought in foreign specialists and because of her efforts we soon will have an office of ninety people, including four prosecutors, researching possible misdeeds before and during the crash. This seems quite exemplary.
From Grünerlökka to the Palais de Justice
Eva Joly has had an exceptional career. She is Norwegian by origin, born Gro Eva Farseth to a tailor in the modest Grünerlökka neighbourhood in Oslo in 1943. The family was not rich, but the daughter was blonde and quite beautiful. She went to France as an au pair, landed in a very bourgeois home and ended up marrying the son against the will of the rather snobbish family. She started taking evening classes in law and later specialised in financial law.
Thus began her tireless crusade against corruption that eventually led her to become an investigating judge. She became famous for conducting the investigation of the Elf scandal—one of the biggest fraud inquires in European history, involving politicians and businessmen—as well as the case of Bernard Tapie and Crédit Lyonnais. For some in France she was a folk hero, but the elite didn’t like her much. She received death threats and bodyguards had to watch her around the clock.
Before Eva Joly came to Iceland she had left her post as an investigating judge and was working for Norad, the Norwegian Aid Organization, travelling around the Third World advising on how to fight against corruption and capital flight.
A Presidential Candidate
This was a fairly low profile job for this soft spoken but tough woman. Since then things have changed for her. She is now again one of the most talked about people in France. Soon after she came to Iceland she was invited to run for the European Parliament for the French Greens. She was second on the list, after Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the flamboyant leader of the student revolt in Paris in May 1968. They adopted a very European platform and won a resounding victory. And now it has been decided that she will become the presidential candidate for the Greens in the 2012.
This will probably not result in her becoming the president of France, but with her standing she might get a good outcome, given the ennui with traditional politics. And it is a credit to the French and their policy of accueil that Joly can get this far, despite being of foreign origin and having dual French/Norwegian citizenship.
No Instant Results
But where will this leave Iceland, a country that invested so much trust in Eva Joly. She terminated her contract here in early October, after one and a half years on the job. She was adamant that the investigation was now in capable hands and that we would see results. But many still eagerly await news from the special prosecutor’s office, indicating that the directors and the owners of the banks will be held responsible. Very little has happened as of yet.
But then, Eva Joly never promised instant results. She herself said many times that the investigation would take a long time, and that one of the dangers was that the public and the press might lose their patience, and maybe turn against the prosecution itself. She cited instances where this has happened; in Iceland we have the experience from the so-called Baugur affair—instigated to look into the business affairs of tycoon Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson—which was a total flop.
Icesave, Magma and the EU
Eva Joly is a very blunt person, even though she seldom raises her voice. You ask her a question and she will usually try to answer it, short of compromising an investigation. During her tenure here—she usually came once a month and stayed for four days—she started to become involved in Icelandic politics. This was not universally popular. The government was quite intimidated by some of her utterances, but because of her standing ministers really didn’t dare to confront her directly.
She was very outspoken on the Icesave affair, claiming that it was outrageous for the Icelandic public to pay huge sums for the horribly handled affairs of a private bank. Then she got involved in the Magma affair, where a geothermal company in the southwest has been sold to a Canadian financial adventurer—Joly claimed that this was the kind of business that bankrupted Iceland in the first place. And lastly, when she advocated that Iceland should join the EU, some of her supporters felt estranged from her. But others, who had resented her meddling in Icesave and Magma, were quite happy.
But this is Eva Joly, not a person who fits easily into any category.
(Full disclosure: The author of this article, Egill Helgason, invited Eva Joly for an interview on Icelandic TV in March of 2009, so he is partly responsible for her coming to Iceland in the first place).