French politics needs ‘paparazzi democracy’

As the French president put forward his plan to clean up politics to the government this week, Jacques Terray, Vice President of Transparency International France, tells The Local why the proposals must become law to restore public faith in politicians.

French politics needs 'paparazzi democracy'
File photo: Gilles Mingasson/AFP/Getty

Just a matter of weeks after his government was rocked by a tax fraud scandal that cost the job of his budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac, French president François Hollande presented his official response on Wednesday to his council of ministers.

Among the proposals, will be a requirement for France's 1,200 elected politicians to declare all their assets and interests and they will be barred from holding certain positions, such as advisory roles or central posts in public companies. Failure to declare could result in a prison sentence of up to five years.

A special unit will be set up to investigate tax fraud and any politician convicted of the crime will be barred from holding public office.

But with deputies including many from within his own party threatening to rebel, the proposals are expected to get a rough ride through parliament.

Jacques Terray, Vice President of the anti- corruption organization Transparency International France insists that if confidence is to be restored in France’s politicians, then the proposals, referred to as "paparazzi democracy" by one deputy, must become law.

Jacques Terray: "These measures are absolutely necessary to make French politicians more transparent. The French public has been shocked by the Cahuzac scandal and apart from that there is a long tradition in France of the public being suspicious about the behaviour of their politicians. 

“This culture goes back centuries. There’s always been a suspicion of parliamentarians.

“If we want to break this tradition we have to create very precise rules so that the politicians will always be in a position to show they are transparent.

“Politicians naturally don’t want to show their assets to the public because they fear this will generate far more criticism. At Transparency International, we believe the more information they give about their assets and interests the more it will help them.

“Just look at Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was the minister who declared the most wealth. The reaction has not been hostile towards him. People have supported him.

'Politicians find it easier to talk about sex than money'

“Maybe the strength of opposition among French politicians to this move is because some of them fear having to declare their assets. Some among them might have things they want to hide. They may also fear their electorate will simply think they are too rich to be honest.

“Someone said recently that French politicians would find it easier to talk about sex than money and it's true. It’s part of our Catholic tradition. Catholics don’t normally like to speak about money.

“Conflict of interests is a really significant issue and the president is right to prevent politicians from having certain jobs. I used to be a lawyer and I know that if I had been a politician as well, clients would have come to me and asked me to support bills that were in line with their interest.

“It’s right and important that they are not allowed to have “advisory” or “consultancy” roles.

'French politicians no worse than anywhere else'

“France is very late on this issue, when we compare ourselves to Scandinavian countries, for example. This country must move closer to the Scandinavian way of addressing this problem.

“I am not sure French politicians have a worse record when it comes to corruption than the rest of Europe. Just look at what goes on in Italy and even the MPs expenses scandal in Britain.

“The measures that Hollande is taking are exactly the kind of actions Transparency International has been calling for. Organizations backed by the law need to be given the power and the resources to be able to act. But it needs to be clear that proper means are given."  

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Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers – French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

From coffee runs to rugby tickets and professional photos - France's election financing body has revealed some of the items it has refused to reimburse from the 2022 presidential race.

Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers - French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

Spending on the election trail is tightly regulated in France, with maximum campaign spends per candidate as well as a list of acceptable expenses that can be reimbursed.

In France the State pays at least some of the election campaign costs, with the budget calculated according to how many votes the candidate ends up getting. 

READ MORE: 5 things to know about French election campaign financing

On Friday, the government body (la Commission nationale des comptes de campagne et des financements politiques – or CNCCFP) released its findings for the 12 candidates who ran in the April 2022 presidential campaign. 

All of the candidates had their accounts approved, but 11 out of the 12 were refused reimbursement on certain items. Here are some of the items that did not get CNCCFP approval;

Rugby tickets 

Jean Lassalle – the wildcard ‘pro farmer’ candidate who received about three percent of votes cast in the first round of the 2022 election – bought “19 tickets to attend a rugby match” according to the CNCCFP’s findings. The organisation said it would not be reimbursing the tickets and questioned “the electoral nature of the event”. 

The total cost of the tickets was €465 (or €24.50 each).

Too many coffees

Socialist candidate, and current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo reportedly spent at least €1,600 on coffee for her team during the campaign.

According to the CNCCFP, however, the caffeine needed to keep a presidential campaign running did not qualify under the country’s strict campaign financing rules.

Too many stickers

Hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s was told that the 1.2 million stickers that were bought – to the tune of €28,875 – to advertise the campaign would not be reimbursed. Mélenchon justified the purchasing of the stickers – saying that in the vast majority of cases they were used to build up visibility for campaign events, but CNCCFP ruled that “such a large number” was not justified. 

Mélenchon was not the only one to get in trouble for his signage. Extreme-right candidate Éric Zemmour was accused of having put up over 10,000 posters outside official places reserved for signage. The same went for the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, who decided to appeal the CNCCFP’s decision not to reimburse €300,000 spent on putting posters of her face with the phrase “M la France” on 12 campaign buses.

Poster pictures

Emmanuel Macron – who won re-election in 2022 – will not be reimbursed for the €30,000 spent on a professional photographer Soazig de la Moissonière, who works as his official photographer and took the picture for his campaign poster. 

The CNCCFP said that Macron’s team had “not sufficiently justified” the expenditure.

Expensive Airbnbs

Green party member Yannick Jadot reportedly spent €6,048 on Airbnbs in the city of Paris for some of his campaign employees – an expense that the CNCCFP said that public funds would not cover.

Translating posters

The campaign finance body also refused to reimburse the Mélenchon campaign’s decision to translate its programme into several foreign languages at a cost of €5,398.

The CNCCFP said that they did not consider the translations to be “an expense specifically intended to obtain votes” in a French election.

Best and worst in class

The extreme-right pundit Zemmour had the largest amount of money not reimbursed. Zemmour created a campaign video that used film clips and historic news footage without permission and also appeared on CNews without declaring his candidacy – because of these two offences, CNCCFP has reduced his reimbursement by €200,000. He has been hit with a separate bill of €70,000 after he was found guilty of copyright infringement over the campaign video. 

The star pupil was Nathalie Arthaud, high-school teacher and candidate for the far-left Lutte Ouvriere party, who apparently had “completely clean accounts”. A CNCCFP spokesperson told Le Parisien that if all candidate accounts were like Arthauds’, then “we would be unemployed”.