French clean government bill presented, as ministers investigated

The new French government intends to clean up politics. Justice Minister Francois Bayrou on Wednesday presented a clean government bill, after a string of corruption and ethics scandals in France over the past several years. It’s the first major legislation put forward by President Emmanuel Macron's administration, and it follows up on a campaign promise.

French justice minister presenting the bill to the press.
French justice minister presenting the bill to the press. Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

“It’s about putting practices and rules in place to protect citizens from abuse, and give them back a confidence in democratic life,” said Bayrou when he presented his proposed legislation to the media, earlier this month.

French confidence in government has been degrading for several years, and surveys show that trust in public officials is at an all-time low.

There was a first attempt to add transparency after the so-called Cahuzac affair in 2012, when Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac was discovered to have hidden bank accounts in Switzerland with 3.5 million euros of undeclared income.

This prompted then President Francois Hollande to announce a series of measures, including a law which was passed requiring elected officials to make their financial situations public.

Since then, there have been other scandals, most recently during the presidential election campaign, when the conservative candidate Francois Fillon was accused of paying his wife as a parliamentary aide, though she allegedly did not do any actual work.

And far-right candidate Marine Le pen was accused of using European Parliament money, intended to hire assistants, to finance her political party.

None of this helped ease the public’s feeling that all politicians are corrupt, which is why there is a need for a law.

“We need a collective return to confidence,” said Bayrou. “We can no longer comment on individual behaviour, or adopt half-measures in reaction to events and then forget them. It is essential to adopt a global measure, to restore citizen’s confidence.”

Government has its own problems

But this government is facing its own conflict of interest issues.

Bayrou’s party, the centrist Modem, is currently being investigated for possibly misusing European Parliament funds, and European Affairs Minister, Marielle de Sarnez, also a member of the Modem, is facing a similar probe.

And in the Minister for Territorial Cohesion, Richard Ferrand, is under investigation for his past business practices.

Nevertheless, the government is going forward with the bill, which would require the National Assembly and the Senate to set specific rules to prevent conflicts of interest.

The proposed law imposes term limits on lawmakers. And there is a measure banning lawmakers from hiring family members. About 100 out of the 577 members of the National Assembly employed at least one family member during the last term.

The bill also asks MPs to report expenses. Today, they receive monthly allowances, which they do not have to justify.

The bill goes even further than Macron’s campaign promise: it gets rid of a special court for lawmakers, the Cour de justice de la République. This means MPs and ministers would be judged by the same courts as any other citizen.

There is also a proposal to change the rules of the constitutional council.

“Former presidents will no longer be [automatically] part of the Constitutional Council, which will bring the council closer to supreme courts of other states,” constitutionalist Olivier Rouquan told RFI. “This lends a credibility to France, about the rule of law and a separation of powers.”

For him, these reforms show that France is ready to reform institutions in line with international standards.

Campaign funding

One measure that Bayrou insisted on being part of the bill is the creation of a financial institution, called a “democratic bank”, that would lend money to political parties for their campaigns.

Currently, small parties like his, rely on asking for loans from private banks.

The Modem would benefit, as would the Front National. The FN’s treasurer, Wallerand de Saint-Just, told RFI that Marine Le Pen, the former head of the party and its presidential candidate, spoke with Bayrou about the issue.

“He said, I do not generally agree with Marine Le Pen,” he said. But, after speaking about the issue, Bayrou “understood it. There is an unbalance, and a democratic inequality that is very difficult for small parties.”

The proposals will probably easily pass in parliament, which after Sunday’s election will most likely have an overwhelming majority of lawmakers supporting Macron.

A constitutional reform is needed to modify the Constitutional Council, and this will require a two-thirds vote in both chambers – something that is trickier politically, and will therefore wait until the fall.

(Additional reporting by Laurence Theault and Pierre Firtion)

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