French MPs: is there a deontologist in the house?
Last week, the head of France’s lower house of parliament, Claude Bartolone, announced he would freeze its budget for the next 5 years and cut the MPs’ expenses allowance by 10%. What a good example to set while ordinary French people are struggling with the crisis, was the consensus. But the very same day, he found himself under fire from the opposition (that’s the right these days) after it emerged he had employed his wife as a member of his cabinet. Needless to say, Bartolone himself did not see the problem. "I can easily explain it, he told the website Le Lab d'Europe 1. I did not hire my wife, I married my co-worker. She has been my co-worker since 1998”. (Yes, except that they got married in 2006, not five minutes ago). Left-wing daily Libération, not particularly sympathetic, suggested to Bartolone he might want to heed the example of the European Parliament, where it is forbidden for an elected official to hire a close family member. “That would be going too far”, he breezily asserted.
France’s lower house of parliament. Photo: AFP.
This is not the only recent example of questionable goings-on in France’s lower house. Last year, under the previous government and with cross-party approval, a deontologist (professional ethics tsar) was hired to try to weed out conflicts of interest among MPs. The main task of said deontologist, a professor emeritus of law named Jean Gicquel, was to get the MPs to fill in a “declaration of interests” form. His first chance to do so was going to be after the parliamentary elections back in June. But three days after the elections, he was told to leave his office! “I was told I would get a new [office] in July, then September, then October”, the 75-year-old Gicquel told Le Parisien newspaper. Again, needless to say, he never got a new office and will not be getting one. In fact, the small print of his contract stipulates that he can only actually be employed for one legislature, and his term is not renewable. But then why didn’t his boss - Bartolone - simply make that clear to him from the outset?
The word now is that a new ethics tsar will be chosen next week, on October 10th. Bartolone has hinted that he would like it to be Pierre Joxe, a former Socialist minister. I wish the best of luck to whoever it is, since goodness knows what they might uncover. For example, French MPs do not have to justify how they spend their monthly expenses allowance. One of them, Charles de Courson, who is campaigning for more transparency, admitted back in July that this was a ticking bomb. “Knowing that some colleagues use part of this allowance for expenses other than professional ones, there will one day be a big scandal, like in Great Britain," he said, referring to the Westminster expenses scandal of 2009. (Remember those pictures of “duck island”?)
Oh, and it’s a shame the deontologist can’t take a trip down the road to the Élysée palace. A few weeks ago, it emerged that Valérie Trierweiler, France’s first lady, was using Élysée headed paper for correspondence relating entirely to her job as a journalist at Paris Match. Tut, tut.