Scandal in France
2017 is an election year in France so not a day goes by without something making the headlines about one of the confirmed or prospective candidates (the Socialist Party has 2 names left in the running and the result is due within days). The latest talk of the town on the French political scene is the issue of centre-right Les Républicains party presidential candidate and former Prime Minister (2007-12) François Fillon’s wife having been employed as his parliamentary assistant for a period of 8 years, from 1998-2007 and briefly in 2012, and earning the princely sum of €500,000 ($535,000) in total (€5000 a month) for allegedly not lifting a finger. The issue is a double whammy, in that Fillon is seen as unwise for having employed his wife – albeit not illegal, with some 20% of French MPs hiring family members – and in addition to that she likely did not do the work for which she was paid so it looks like a case of favouritism and fraud all rolled up in one. An investigation has been opened into possible charges of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds. Fillon has called for a meeting with the relevant authorities to clarify the situation, affirming that no wrongdoing took place.
This is, of course, a brewing scandal that the candidate could have done without because it stands to erode his already less than stellar approval rating with the French public, which stands at 31% in January 2017 according to TNS Sofres (the French equivalent of Gallup or Pew. This is due to the trust-eroding nature of an issue of this nature in and of itself, but also even more so given that Fillon’s economic programme places so much emphasis on employment. In Fillon’s France, people would work longer hours, unemployment benefits would be reduced, state-financed contracts for people having trouble finding work would be cut because they are sees as too expensive and producing very little results, the retirement age would go up from 62 to 65 (this was perhaps the thorniest issue of his tenure as PM when a retirement age reform brought the country to a virtual standstill with strikes and protests in 2010), and there would even be one less public holiday a year.
The state is under strain. Everyone has to make an effort”
In a televised debate last November against rival Alain Juppé, Fillon said that civil servants should work 39 hours a week but only be paid for 37, saying they had to “put in extra effort to help the country get back on track”.
With this being his stance, it is excruciatingly ironic that he is now caught up in accusations of having given someone exorbitant sums of money for a public sector job that they in fact did not even do. The country’s overburdened public finances were apparently not an issue during the 8-year stretch in question. All in all, Fillon and his supporters can and will place most of the emphasis on the fact that it’s totally above board for a parliamentarian to hire their relatives in the French system. The practice is legal but still frowned upon.
Is it corrupt or just in bad taste?
The corruption issue
Global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International publishes a yearly report of its well-known Corruption Perception Index, ranking all the countries in the world from cleanest to dirtiest. The map below shows the state of global corruption in 2015, with red being the dirtiest or most corrupt, and yellow the cleanest.
The map shows Canada, the US, Western and Northern Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and a few pockets of Southern Africa and South America as performing well in battling corruption, while the rest of the world has not done as well.
France’s 2015 rank was 23rd, or 15th in Europe alone, behind the likes of top ranked Denmark, Finland and Sweden, among others. A small developing country in the Caribbean region – Trinidad & Tobago was ranked 72nd – or tied for 4th in the Caribbean and Central America behind Costa Rica (40th), Cuba (56th) and Jamaica (69th) and tied with El Salvador and Panama.
The Caribbean / Central America region has generally not performed as well as Western Europe in international corruption rankings. Corruption is most often seen as an issue of bribes being paid to get authorities to look the other way while rules are flouted, or of kickbacks regarding public contracts. Trinidad & Tobago is no stranger to such cases: to quote only perhaps the most noteworthy one, an airport renovation overpricing scandal rocked the country’s government and grabbed headlines in the late 1990s. The Caribbean country is also known for its corrupt customs department: as quoted by an episode of the UK Channel 4 show Unreported World in 2011 entitled Trinidad: Guns, Drugs and Secrets, the UN estimated in 2004 that at that point some $100 million (€94 million) in bribes were being paid to buy the cooperation of Trinidadian port authorities in order to facilitate the booming illegal drug trade which sees untold quantities of cocaine transit through the country en route to North America and Europe.
Apart from those kinds of issues, Trinidad & Tobago has had issues with its MPs being called out for some practices seen in a negative light in the country, with MPs often criticised for being frequently absent from sittings of parliament. Detractors have also cried foul upon learning that MPs have dual citizenship (the issue has come up elsewhere in the Caribbean in Jamaica, and is a hot topic currently as far afield as Algeria where a new law has been introduced barring dual citizens from holding top government and military positions.
Last year in Trinidad, 4 opposition MPs from the United National Congress party, including the opposition leader, found themselves in hot water after it was revealed that they all had been employing relatives of some sort at their constituency offices, contravening the rules of the Trinidad & Tobago Parliament’s Constituency Manual. In most of these cases it was either a matter of distant relatives or relatives who had been working at the constituency offices before their kin was elected to preside over the office.
In the one case of an immediate relative actually hired by an MP, the arrangement had been ongoing for 6 months when it was highlighted and the MP in question immediately terminated the employment of their relative, citing ignorance of new rules for hiring by parliamentarians that ran counter to what had obtained prior. There was an existing rule concerning hiring family but it was not as clearly stated as the new one. According to the MP, as soon as they realised they were fully on the wrong side of the new regulation forbidding employing “spouses, co-habitants, children/step-children/adopted children, grandchildren, parents /step-parents / grandparents, siblings, nephews / nieces, uncles / aunts, cousins”, they let their family member go and took the necessary steps to reimburse the state the monies paid to their relative over the 6-month period, amounting to the equivalent of $10,000 (€9,000).
The firestorm of criticism continued, with critics calling on the MPs to resign, but eventually tapered off. What is interesting is that in France – where politicians are perceived as less corrupt – the issue is the fact that François Fillon’s wife was paid for doing nothing, with the fact the she is his wife and employed by him being perfectly legal, making that part of the issue just an uncomfortable footnote and not the crux of the matter, whereas in Trinidad – because the rules forbid the practice – the fact that MPs hired even distant relatives (in one case the daughter of the MPs grandfather’s second wife) led to them being singled out as corrupt and calls for them to leave office.
In France, the corruption issue is lessened because they don’t have rules as stringent on that particular matter as exist in Trinidad and Tobago, which paradoxically ends up with a greater perception of corruption precisely because the country actually has a particular rule to ensure transparency in hiring.
To his credit, the Trinidadian MP gave back the relatively small €9,000 sum of money that had been paid to his relative over the short 6-month period. Fillon, coming out aggressively in claiming that there has been no wrongdoing and that he has all the documentation to prove it despite mounting evidence that his wife never performed the duties she was paid for, certainly doesn’t look set to offer to return jaw-dropping sum of half a million euros of his wife’s alleged ill-gotten gains to French state coffers. The whole thing may prove to be a storm in a teacup. This begs the question of whose perception is reflected in international corruption perception indices.
One thing is for certain: Fillon may possibly have set his wife up with a €500,000 8-year invisible job stint, but he sure can’t hold a candle to former President Jacques Chirac, who over the course of his 18 years as mayor of Paris (1977-95) and the 6 years served by his successor up to 2001, created 43 “ghost jobs” to the tune of some €4.5 million. Fillon just can’t seem to become as grand a figure of French politics or as skilled at siphoning off state funds as the last man to date to serve 2 terms as president.