Plan to ‘clean up’ politics turning into French farce

President François Hollande's campaign to clean up French politics after the Cahuzac Affair began in earnest this week, with a demand for cabinet ministers to make their assets public. His attempt at 'transparency', however has been mocked in some quarters.

Plan to 'clean up' politics turning into French farce

President François Hollande's efforts to "go all the way" to clean up French politics in response to the scandal over former Budget Minister Jérome Cahuzac’s secret Swiss bank account, are well underway.

He has demanded that ministers publicly declare all their assets by April 15th at the latest, and has encouraged all elected deputies to follow suit.

However the move aimed at "moralisation", which would bring French politicians into line with their counterparts across Europe, has been criticized and ridiculed as pointless 'voyeurism' in some quarters of the press and among politicians. 

Some ministers have enthusiastically opened their books to the public through their own blog entries and Facebook posts, revealing everything from Renault Twingos to luxury furniture. One politician, although not a minister even revealed her "high value" carbon kayaks.

This however has lead to the declarations being mocked by elements in the French press, as well as by legions of Twitter users.

French Housing Minister Cécile Duflot became the butt of more than a few jokes this week when she revealed she is the proud owner of a 1999 Renault Twingo.

French writer David Foenkinos was one of many to take to Twitter to express their amusement (and bemusement) about Duflot’s ‘revelation.’

“A minister hides millions in Switzerland, and as a result we find out that Duflot owns a Twingo. Somebody explain to me the link,” he said.

Eva Joly, fomer presidential candidate for the Green party, also opened herself up to scorn when she reaffirmed the assets she publicized before last year’s election.

“My declaration of assets was completely transparent. I revealed everything, even including my kayaks. They’re expensive because they’re made of carbon,” she told BFMTV.

Arnaud Montebourg, French Minister of Industrial Renewal, revealed himself to be a bit of a design connoisseur on Tuesday, when he told French daily Le Monde he was the proud owner of a €4,500 armchair from American designer Charles Eames.

French Junior Minister of Disabled People, Marie-Arlette Carlotti, has raised a few eyebrows in France with her property portfiolio. According to financial daily Les Echos, Carlotti has a 130-square-metre apartment in Marseille, a 120-square-metre apartment in Hérault, and a 70-square-metre apartment in Corsica.

Health Minister Marisol Touraine appears to be the wealthiest cabinet-member so far to reveal her assets, which amount to a total of €1.4 million, according to Les Echos.

Centre-right UMP deputy from Nice, and former professional motorcyclist, Christian Estrosi, seems to have a taste for the antique, having declared €6,000-worth of jewelry and books, along with three apartments with a total value over €900,000.

See Also: The ten most outrageous French political scandals

Process criticised as a "smoke screen"

However politicians, especially those among the opposition UMP ranks, have been heavily critical of the efforts to increase transparency.

“This won’t change anything,” said François Fillon, a senior opposition UMP deputy and former French prime minister, on Monday.

“If you’re dishonest, no regulation is going to set you straight,” Fillon told France 2 television.

UMP leader Jean-François Copé on Tuesday condemned what he called the "voyeurism and hypocrisy" of the project. "Hollande wants to put out a smoke-screen, to make everyone forget [about the Cahuzac affair]" he was quoted as saying in Le Point.

Transparency will only cloud the issue

The press have also joined in to ridicule the process.

Political journalist Caroline Roux this week predicted that the declarations would be worse than pointless, causing more public scepticism towards politicians, rather than less.

“The rich will have fingers pointed at them, and the less well-off will be suspected of hiding something,” she was quoted as saying by Europe 1 radio.

Hervé Gettegno, columnist at weekly magazine Le Point,  agreed, saying suspicions will only be raised because “we will be evaluating the total amount of the assets, but not their origins.”

Hollande's government has been under mounting pressure since Socialist former Budget Minister Jérome Cahuzac was charged with laundering the proceeds of tax evasion on April 4th, after admitting he had owned a foreign bank account.

Despite distancing themselves from Cahuzac, and despite his expulsion from the Socialist party, Hollande's government has been accused by figures on the right of having known about Cahuzac's illegal activities for months.

On Sunday, Swiss television TSR alleged the former minister had traveled to Geneva in 2009, in an unsuccessful attempt to transfer €15 million into one of his bank accounts. 

This week's new effort on transparency has underlined the fact that France is trailing behind its European neighbours in this department.

"In the European Union, there are only two countries where asset declarations for elected officials are not public: Slovenia and France. This speaks volumes about the backwardness of our political customs," Daniel Lebegue, head of the French branch of anti-corruption group Transparency International, told AFP.

There could, however, be a broader cultural explanation for this failure to examine the accounts of elected representatives. French sociologist Janine Mossuz-Lavau told AFP that the French people "found it much more difficult to talk about money than about sex."

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Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%?

The French government has capped electricity prices rises at four percent - but as with many French rules, there are certain exceptions.

Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%?

Question: I read in the media that electricity prices in France are capped at four percent, but I just got a letter from EDF telling me that my bill is going up by almost 20 percent – is this a mistake?

The French government’s bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield), froze gas prices at 2021 levels and capped electricity price hikes to four percent – it remain in place until at least the end of 2022.

However, there are some customers who will see increases to their bills of more than that – here’s why: 

The regulated tariff rate

The French government involvement in price-setting doesn’t just happen during periods of energy crisis, normally regulated tariff prices are updated twice a year: usually on February 1st and August 1st.

Typically, this value is calculated by the CRE (commission de régulation de l’énergie) and it is based on several different factors, which are explained on this government website. These tariffs proposed by the CRE are then subject to approval by the ministers in charge of energy and the economy.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

These affect the state-owned Engie (formerly Gaz de France), the mostly state-owned EDF and some local distribution companies. Around 70 percent of people in France get their electricity from EDF but other suppliers do exist in the market.

These alternative suppliers, like Direct-Énergie, Total Spring or Antargaz, are free to charge more – but don’t usually charge much above the EDF rates for obvious commercial reasons.

Basic rate

The government-set limit in price rises refers only to the basic rate (option base) for electricity.

This plan represents over 80 percent of the 32 million households connected to the electricity grid in France. So, there is a good chance you might be subscribed to this without even realising it. 

If you are on the basic tariff rate, your bill will not increase by more than four percent this year.

Other tariff options

However, other options for electricity bills do exist, including off-peak rates, green deals and fixed energy prices for a certain period.

Typically people who sign up for these will have been paying less for their electricity in the preceding months than those on the base rate.

However, there are certain special deals that are not covered by the four percent cap, and some users will find that their deal period has come to an end, they are then shifted onto the base rate – which is likely to represent a price increase for them of more than four percent.

It’s little consolation when faced with rising bills, but you will likely have been paying significantly less than customers who have been in the base rate for the past few years.

READ MORE: French government to continue energy price freeze until at least 2023

Kilowatt price

Because most electricity price plans are bafflingly complicated, the easiest way to compare is to look at the price per kilowatt-hour.

Your electricity bill consists of a fixed part, the monthly subscription (abonnement) and the variable part, which depends on the quantity of electricity consumed (in euro per kilowatt-hour, kWh). The latter part is what is concerned by the tariff shield of four percent.

Here is an example of what that might look like:

The mid-August base rate price per kilowatt-hour is €0.1740/ kWh, so if you’re with EDF they cannot charge you more than this rate.

Other EDF plans charge significantly less than that – for example the Vert Electrique Weekend deal has been charging €0.1080/kWh on weekends and €0.1434/kWh on weekdays. 

Bill rises

With the tariff shield, the average resident customer on the base rate will see a €38 rise on their bill this year, while professional customers will see an average of €60 rise. 

Without the tariff shield, electricity prices per residential (non-business) customer would likely have increased an average of €330 a year, according to the CRE.