A rupture in French attitudes towards corruption?
06 Jul 2017

French President Emmanuel Macron has lost four ministers since taking office in May. Three were from MoDem, the junior party in his government, which has been hit by a party financing scandal.

The most prominent minister to resign was François Bayrou, MoDem leader and Macron’s short-lived Justice Minister.

Another prominent MoDem minister, Marielle de Sarnez, resigned from her brief as minister for European affairs—a key role as Macron seeks to reinvigorate an embattled EU. Meanwhile Sylvie Goulard, a MoDem MEP, stepped down as Defence Minister. She had been under pressure to resign as her party attracted the attention of state prosecutors.

MoDem is accused of using EU parliamentary funds to pay party workers actually working for the party in France, not for its representatives at the European Parliament. Adding to the scandal, Bayrou telephoned Radio France journalists to ask them to hold back on investigating the matter.

Richard Ferrand—from Macron’s own party La République En Marche (LREM), and his short-lived minister for regional cohesion—has also resigned because of claims of financial impropriety. Last month Le Canard Enchaîné, a French weekly often likened to Private Eye, reported a series of allegations about Ferrand’s role as head of Mutuelles de Bretagne, a non-profit health insurance organisation, between 1998 and 2012. Ferrand’s partner was allegedly given contracts by the fund under his leadership, as well as making money from a property deal in which she rented out commercial space to it. Ferrand’s ex-wife is also claimed to have been given contracts by Mutuelles de Bretagne.

Many observers see this as embarrassing for Macron. On 1 June the President unveiled a new “moralisation law”. This will ban members of parliament, politicians in local government and high-ranking civil servants from employing family members. Politicians will no longer just be given a sum of money to spend on expenses; they will have to produce receipts for spending on appropriate purchases and then be reimbursed. But, awkwardly for Macron, this policy launch was on the same day that prosecutors announced their inquiry into Ferrand. Meanwhile, the minister promoting the new legislation and set to implement it was none other than the then Justice Minister, François Bayrou.

Much significance lies in the fact that Macron’s four ministers felt the need to resign before any impropriety had been proven. That was hitherto rare in France. The presidential campaign that brought Macron to power marks a watershed in French attitudes to financial impropriety amongst their politicians.

The most (in)famous example of improper financial conduct by French politicians concerns François Mitterand, President from 1981 to 1995. Mitterand did not sleep at the Élysée Palace with his wife. He spent the nights at an apartment on the Quai Branly across the Seine, with his secret mistress and their secret daughter. Their living expenses – and the 36 strong protection team specifically tasked with ensuring that this arrangement remained clandestine – were paid for by the French taxpayer. When the story finally got out after Mitterand’s death, France reacted with more laughter than anger.

Last year, centre-right former Prime Minister and Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé, of the conservative Les Républicains (LR), was considered the most likely candidate to succeed Macron’s Socialist predecessor François Hollande. In 2004, when Mayor of Bordeaux, Juppé was prosecuted for misuse of public funds. As head of the RPR, a predecessor to LR, he used staff from Paris’ municipal authority to work for his party instead. The sentence for this crime consisted of an eighteen month suspended prison term combined with a ten year ban on running for political office. On appeal, the ban was reduced to a year, and in 2006, Juppé was re-elected as Mayor of Bordeaux. He had done his time and that was that.

The downfall of François Fillon—who unexpectedly beat Juppé to the LR Presidential nomination late last year—shows the change in French attitudes. After winning the LR contest, Fillon was the favourite to take the Élysée Palace, until on 15 January Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that his wife Penelope was paid more than half a million euros over 15 years for work as his parliamentary assistant. There is no evidence that she did any work in the French parliament. In 2007 she told the Telegraph: “I’ve never actually been his assistant.”

More scandalous revelations soon emerged: a literary journal owned by one of France’s wealthiest men effectively paid Penelope Fillon 100,000 euros for writing 400 words. An anonymous “friend” just happened to give Fillon suits worth EUR 48,500.

A central concept in France’s thinking about its political history is that of ‘la rupture’ – a big, sudden paradigm shift. Examples include the Revolution started in 1789, and de Gaulle’s creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. 2016 saw France’s anti-establishment wave reach new heights – as it did in most of the Western world. Anger at years of politicians’ financial impropriety was part of this. The fear was that the Front National’s (FN) anti-liberal Marine Le Pen would take power after the Brexit referendum and election of Donald Trump as US President, creating a big rupture indeed.

Instead, Emmanuel Macron has taken power with a different kind of anti-establishment verve; the youthful President who had never before held elected office claims to embody a new politics, breaking apart the old party system with his new movement. After the rupture that has brought Macron to power, it seems that any sign of politicians’ involvement in corruption effectively bars them from office until they can prove their innocence.

 

Tom Wheeldon

 

 

 

Tom Wheeldon is a freelance journalist and political commentator at Radio France Internationale.

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