The wheels of justice grind notoriously slowly in France, but accumulating evidence suggests that one reason President Sarkozy is running so hard to stay in the Elysee Palace is because the alternative to re-election might just be jail.Via Meadia contributor Jacob Albert lays out the rich and dark web of high level French corruption, money laundering, Swiss bankers sneaking back and forth across the frontiers with cash stuffed envelopes in a gripping piece over on the AI homepage.Read the whole thing, not just to understand the visceral disgust that President Sarkozy evokes in so many of his compatriots, but also to see why, despite the threat that his election may plunge the whole eurozone back into chaos, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande continues to lead Sarkozy in the second-round polls.Italy is consumed by the trial of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, where among other things we are learning that strippers dressed (briefly) as nuns helped entertained the aging roue and selected guests. France has just seen charges against its last president, Jacques Chirac, dismissed only because Chirac was deemed to be in his dotage and unable to stand trial. Sarkozy could well be next on the list. Incumbent president in France get immunity from prosecution in office; Sarkozy desperately wants a second term and seems willing to say or do just about anything to get one.It is good to see high profile figures getting tough scrutiny, especially in countries where law in the past has often genuflected to the great rather than restraining them. Nevertheless, there are downsides. On the one hand, democracy loses respect when whole political classes are revealed to be venal and thuggish. And on the other, the political stakes rise sharply when incumbents face a choice between a palace and a prison cell. Julius Caesar destroyed the Roman Republic because he feared a trial for corruption at the hands of his political rivals: it was cross the Rubicon or die.In the end, as virtually every serious political thinker from the dawn of time has agreed, republics do not long survive without virtue — in the people as a whole, and among the powerful. There are a number of prominent European republics where moral termites seem to have gone very far in eating away the foundations of democratic institutions — and I’m not sure that we in the United States can afford to be particularly smug.The international network of money laundering and tax evasion, and the role that Swiss banks, British ruled offshore havens and other unsavory jurisdictions play in the creation of an international moneyed elite who laugh at the little people stuck with paying the taxes they evade, is an aspect of contemporary reality that merits much more attention than it gets.Via Meadia understands (and even sympathizes with) private individuals trying to keep their wealth out of the hands of some of the world’s more confiscatory regimes, and we don’t favor giving unsavory governments more power to extort private wealth. Many European countries have published confiscatory levels of taxation while semi-officially winking at tax evasion and money smuggling for generations, and this system cannot be disassembled all at once. But we think that reasonable tax rates, fairly and impartially enforced, are necessary. Wholesale tax evasion by the wealthiest promotes an attitude of contempt toward the law and toward their fellow human beings: add arrogant plutocrats to venal politicians and some of the classic elements that have destroyed great republics in the past begin to appear.We do not know all the facts about President Sarkozy and quite possibly a thorough investigation would demonstrate his innocence beyond all dispute. But the clouds are dark enough, and the smell is bad enough, that a thorough official investigation of the whole tangled mess is urgently needed.Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom; it begins to look as if it is time for the French to pay up.