Why France’s Woes Over Money in Politics are Unsurprising

Global Integrity
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The political financing scandal that has rocked the French government in recent weeks does little to dispel the notion that France suffers from “rotten politics.” Although President Sarkozy continues to deny the allegations that he and his party took illicit cash contributions from a wealthy conservative benefactor, critics have already started to deride his government for favoring the wealthy elite of France at the expense of the average French citizen. The uproar comes at a time when Sakorzy is looking to push through tough austerity measures that would eat away at the country’s cherished welfare state, further pouring fuel on the fire.

While the recent scandal has been portrayed as unexpected in the mainstream media, the France scorecard included in the Global Integrity Report: 2007 foreshadowed much of the current crisis. In fact, France’s safeguards to guard against these kinds of political financing scandals seemed to lag behind other EU members such as Spain and Germany.

At the heart of the problem for France is that while safeguards regulating the financing of political parties and candidates are well articulated in law, enforcement has often been spotty at best in France. Our indicators from 2007 noted that political campaigns in France were particularly susceptible to accepting private sector contributions that skirted or violated French political financing laws. Perhaps more problematically, the assessment noted that French citizens (and importantly, the media and local civil society organizations) had difficulty accessing the financial records of political parties and candidates within a reasonable time period, with political parties often times concealing information pertaining to financial support.

France has been tailoring legislation over the past decade to try and clean up problems in political financing. Following a wave of reform in 1995, private donations were capped at 7,500 euros annually to a political party and 4,600 euros to a candidate, whilst donations exceeding 150 euros were required to be donated by check rather than cash. The recent scandal has helped to remind the French public that caps alone will not suffice, however. A recent BBC article called attention to the ability of political parties to donate money to each other in a completely unregulated fashion. This loophole has fueled the development of largely unregulated satellite groups that serve as vehicles for collecting money for political parties. To paraphrase Captain Renault, should we really be “shocked, shocked to find that [political financing scandals] are going on [in France]?”

What’s arguably more shocking is that despite the fact that these scandals crop up like clockwork in OECD countries, little has been done to tackle the problem systematically. This may also explain why so many OECD donor countries have engaged so little in the developing world on issues of political financing reform, instead preferring to treat governance and transparency reforms as apolitical, technocratic projects rather than true political-economy challenges. It’s also why political financing remains the number one anti-corruption weakness globally, according to Global Integrity data, and why we should expect more of the same moving forward in both the global North and South.

–Shahryar Malik
— image: Sarkozy Poster (cc by/sa/nc) by Bwills

Global Integrity
Global Integrity

One comment on “Why France’s Woes Over Money in Politics are Unsurprising”

  • The Bettencourt affair is far from over and concerns many aspects of the French society. I am not sure that the implementation of the rules regulating the financing of political parties is the most important although one consequence of the scandal could be a better implementation that would target all parties as they are all involved (André Bettencourt was an old friend of Mitterand).
    A larger question seems how wealth is distributed, how is wealth redistributed (through taxation and through philanthropy), how big are the income inequalities.
    Beyond the breach of regulations concerning the financing of politicians the French public is exposed to a story of megawealth during very difficult economic times for a lot of people.
    We see questions arising about the way Liliane Bettencourt's advisers managed her wealth so that she paid the less taxes and even collected a controversial tax rebate totaling Euros 100 million.
    If the outrage grows the debate could move toward those taxation and redistribution of wealth issues that are important elements of how a society functions: is there less corruption in a more equalitarian society where income differences are smaller?
    While reading about the Bettencourt story I wondered what she did with all this money and I thought about the recent call for more philanthropy from the very rich from Bill gates and Warren Buffett. Google led me to the Liliane Bettencourt Foundation site (created in 1987) where some of the family money is invested and distributed. Interestingly enough the grants allocated increase strongly for the last 3 years, when the "bouclier fiscal" that provided big tax rebates for the super-rich was voted. Although the grants increased they did not increase as much as the rebates.
    I guess my point is beyond the question of regulating political financing a key issue is wealth management: how wealth is created, inherited, shared, distributed and what effect (if any) does wealth distribution has on corruption and the general well being of a society.

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