It would appear that shame is an emotion that is not in sufficient quantity in some quarters of French politics. In a stunning turn of events, the rising star of the Socialist government, Jerome Cahuzac, who resigned from his Budget portfolio last month over allegations that he had hidden money from the tax authorities in a foreign bank account, who had spent months denying the allegations, on radio, television and even in the National Assembly, who had begun libel proceedings against the news organisation that led with the accusations, has now admitted that he has an account with some 600,000 € squirreled away and that he has repeatedly lied to all concerned over its existence. He has been charged with tax related money laundering and risks prison.
The government is reeling from the betrayal and brazenness of Cahuzac. What should happen now?
Deckchairs on the Titanic?
The harm done to the government’s credibility is clear. Cahuzac was a crucial part of the original Hollande administration. Although as we had discussed, his role had been reduced from its historic scope, he was a key figure in the fiscal discipline adopted as leitmotif in late 2012. He was also a remarkably combative and effective standard bearer for the right of the Socialist Party, as shown in the debate he had with Jean-Luc Melenchon in January. Ironically, at the end of that debate, he said he was confident that his path was the right one, and that Melenchon was a man who was wrong and “alone”.
The government ejected Cahuzac when the judicial investigation began into the allegations of tax fraud several weeks ago and replaced him by the silky smooth Bernard Cazneuve. However no one expected a full confession from Cahuzac following such repeated, public and convincing denials. The administration’s initial response to the blow has been somewhat weak. The Prime Minister was combative (but visibly shaken) in his first interview the night of the revelations. The following day the President announced the first response – and flopped when it transpired that he was simply re-announcing longstanding measures (such as changes to the way that certain judges report in to the Ministry of Justice – necessary but technical) that would not have impacted how the Cahuzac affair was handled. The opposition called for a change in policy and a government reshuffle. More of the reshuffle later, but for now, the President signaled that this crisis was individual and not collective in nature, but left those wanting a strong response just that, wanting.
The virus spreads
Rather than dying down, the affair has grown in the press, its tentacles spreading out across the political landscape. It transpires the Swiss account was opened by a lawyer who is a close associate of the Front National (this may have resulted in the FN’s failure to see any bump in support, shown in the latest polls) . The treasurer of Hollande’s Presidential campaign has been linked to offshore investment funds in the Cayman Islands as part of the Offshore-leaks reports. A round table debate on Monday evening on France 2 turned into a shouting match between politicians all eager to remind the other that their parties too had faced scandal and shame. Further measures are to be announced by the President today to tackle the issue of tax fraud and conflicts of interest.
We don’t talk about money at the dinner table…
Could it have been any different? French politics, in common with many other political systems in Western democracies, suffers from the cynicism of the voters, who largely assume that those who enter politics seek to personally profit from the process, at the expense of the “ordinary” voter. Plenty of examples abound of such behaviour. The current political crisis in Italy demonstrates what happens when that cynicism transfers to the electoral process.
Plus pauvre que moi et tu meurs…
To head off the growing sense of crisis, Ministers and Deputies have begun to publish details about their personal assets – so far Social Affairs Minister, Marisol Tourraine is in the lead with 1.4 million euros (almost all in the form of apartments she has acquired over the years), with Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Minister for Women and Spokesperson for the Government, trailing last with 25,000 € in savings. Other MPs, including the former Prime Minister François Fillon, have done likewise. A good summary of the declarations so far is available here. Information about Ministers is collected by law, but not made public. The Prime Minister has already announced that will change. But how far should the obligation to make this information available go? A growing crowd of (mainly) right wing MPs are claiming that this tasteless breach of privacy rights is nothing more than a distraction from the Cahuzac affair. On the far left Jean-Luc Melenchon is railing against the policy, but he is out of step with his own movement and his motivations for opposing transparency are not clear.
Haven’t we been here before?
Both the government and the right seem to be missing the point. Both should look across the Channel to the now infamous Expenses Scandal which rocked British politics and cleared out one third of the sitting MPs in the 2010 legislative elections. The sense of disgust at venal politicians using public money to pay for home improvements or acquire property portfolios has been replaced with a general sense of unease at MPs public roles, but a strong and independent regulator, and most importantly, transparency about MPs’ property and incomes has acted as a balm to sooth the visceral public anger which was on display at the height of the scandal.
The answer in France today is the same: transparency and enforcement. Inevitably some do not wish to reveal their wealth, for fear that public life will be a competition at pretending to be poor, or simply because they think it is none of the public’s business. Henri Guano’s departure from politics, which he has mooted, would, given the man’s extraordinary pomposity, be no bad thing (this morning he claimed that François Hollande’s policies amounted to the creation of a fascist state). Nadine Morano’s opposition is beside the point – the voters in 2012 ejected her from the National Assembly, and yet she clings on to the media to exist. Those who are concerned that successful and rich business people will not enter politics need not be too worried – many of them don’t try even now, and when they have done in the past, Francis Mer and Thierry Breton are two good recent examples, they have not been roaring successes, quickly scurrying back to the boardroom. And in any event there appears to be no shortage of people cuing up to take up roles in public life.
Our changing views of privacy
In a country where baby photos are published within minutes for all to see on Facebook, and the details of people’s jobs are posted on their LinkedIn or Viadeo profiles, shared and digested by all and sundry, the influences on a politician, be it a Minister, Senator or Deputy, should be similarly transparent. It should be the case that a sacrifice for acceding to the responsibilities and privileges (both equally grand) of public life include the requirement to publish your assets. To root out the dishonest, like Mr Cahuzac, that information should be verified by some kind of non-political authority. Were it left to Parliamentary commissions to verify the information, such as suggested by the UMP’s Laurent Wauquiez, the issue would be politicised (as it currently is in the United States, the model for such commissions) when it should be one of fact – and then the people can decide.
The press has its role to play too, and to Hollande’s credit, up until now he has let the press and the judicial system get on with the Cahuzac investigation and not interfered. That should be the model going forward and the UMP would do well to remember that when they are next in power.
But sunshine is the best disinfectant. The President should announce a bold new plan for transparency in public life. The critics should get on board, or get out of politics.