Wire Service
3 minute read
4 Feb 2017
3:33 pm

Scandals test French voters’ patience with politicians


For many, "Penelopegate" - the media's term for the furor over the fake-jobs claims against presidential candidate Francois Fillon - may be the last straw.

French politicians accused of playing fast and loose with their finances have long gotten a pass from voters, but a string of recent scandals is putting their patience to the test.

For many, “Penelopegate” – the media’s term for the furor over the fake-jobs claims against presidential candidate Francois Fillon – may be the last straw.

Once considered the frontrunner in elections set for April and May, Fillon is scrambling to save his candidacy after the Canard Enchaine newspaper reported that his wife, Penelope, was paid more than 800,000 euros ($860,000) to be his parliamentary aide, but never actually worked.

He is also accused of hiring two of his children when he was a senator from 2005 to 2007, paying them a total of 84,000 euros, the paper said.

But financial shenanigans have often caught up with prominent French officials: Ex-president Jacques Chirac was found guilty in 2011 over a “fake jobs” scandal while he was mayor of Paris in the 1990s.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, for his part, is under investigation on charges of illegal campaign financing, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate in this year’s presidential race, is facing claims of using EU funds to pay officials in her National Front party.

“It all stems from a culture of caste, of privilege… where they assume that reaching public office means they can get away with doing whatever they want with public money,” said Jean Garrigues, a history professor and author of “Elysee Circus”.

Many voters are also still fuming over the “Cahuzac case” of 2013, when former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac was found to have stashed money in Switzerland to avoid taxes.

Cahuzac, who was sentenced in December 2016 to three years in prison, became a huge embarrassment for President Francois Hollande, who has bowed out of trying to win a second term.

“There was a healthy electroshock with the Cahuzac case”, said Daniel Lebegue, president of Transparency International France.

The French “no longer overlook these things, they don’t accept them,” he said.

“It’s a consequence of the financial crisis, the sacrifices that everyone had to make.”

A 2010 report from his group on transparency among public officials in 27 European countries ranked France second to last, just ahead of Slovenia.

– An ‘invitation to fraud’ –

After Cahuzac, new efforts were made to ensure financial probity, such as requiring MPs to declare their financial assets and to identify their assistants and other employees.

In 2014, a specialised financial prosecutor’s office was created, with judges focusing on fraud and corruption.

And in November 2016, France finally created an official anti-corruption agency.

“But between the moment they change the rules and the institutions, and seeing a change in politician’s attitudes and behaviour, it takes some time,” Lebegue said.

“There’s a gap between people’s demand for morality and the sense of impunity among politicians, which explains why Francois Fillon might not even understand what’s happening to him.”

Unlike at the European Parliament, or in Germany’s Bundestag, French law allows a lawmaker to hire family members, a practice that astonishes many foreign observers.

“The fact that you can hire your close relations, with almost no oversight, is an invitation to fraud”, said Bjorn Willum, a Danish journalist based in Paris.

A French poll taken in the wake of the claims against Fillon — one of an estimated 15 percent of French MPs who have hired relatives — found that 76 percent oppose the practice and now want it outlawed.

But if it were, there would still be work to be done: for example, MPs are given some 9,500 euros a month to pay their assistants. But no one checks to see how that money is spent…