Ministers resign: Two down, now will the big fish fry?

The resignations of two junior French ministers (pictured) over an expenses scandal may have shifted the spotlight away from Labour Minister Eric Woerth, who has been embroiled in a major tax scandal. But Woerth may not be in the dark for too long.


A day after two junior ministers quit in a quintessentially French version of a political expenses scandal that involved publicly financed private jets and exorbitantly priced Cuban cigars, the French press and public were not impressed by the high profile roll of heads. The big fish, observers suggested, was still swimming – untouched – in his post.

In a shock declaration Sunday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office announced the resignations of Junior Development Minister Alain Joyandet and Christian Blanc, a junior minister for the Paris region.

Joyandet was under fire for spending 116,500 euros to hire a private plane to take him to the Caribbean for a meeting on the Haiti earthquake, while Blanc was under pressure for spending 12,000 euros of public money on Cuban cigars.

But most French observers maintained that Joyandet and Blanc were both small political fry sacrificed to try to distract public attention from the big fish: embattled French Labour Minister Eric Woerth.

“Deux demisions pour l’exemple” or "Two resignations to make an example" read the frontpage headline of “Le Parisien,” a popular city daily. “Le Telegramme,” another daily, wondered if the “sacrifice of two men in order to save a third” was “a sign of great panic at the summit of power".

Panic, according to many French analysts and opposition leaders, is spreading in France’s annals of power.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, Pierre Moscovici, an MP from the opposition Socialist Party, noted that Sunday’s resignations exposed the divisions within the government. “There are a whole bunch of little scandals,” said Moscovici, “there are other ministers who are absolutely out of order and I don’t think it’s possible for the government to go on like this.”

Saving pension reform, and the labour minister

The scent of the scandal surrounding Woerth, the current French labour minister and treasurer-cum-chief fund-raiser for the ruling UMP party, has been spreading in recent days.

Dubbed "l’affaire Bettencourt," by the French press, the scandal has focused on Woerth’s ties with Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman and heiress to the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, who faces allegations of tax evasion.

As labour minister, Woerth is charged with implementing one of Sarkozy’s thorniest fiscal programs, the controversial pension reforms, which seek to push back the legal retirement age in France. Pension reform was the centrepiece of Sarkozy's campaign for the 2007 presidential race.

Over the past few weeks, France’s powerful unions have led marches protesting against the reform plan. As French politicians prepare for the 2012 presidential election, economic woes have been worsening across the country. France’s economy grew 0.1 percent in the first quarter and may not reach a forecasted 1.4 percent for the year as jobseekers rose to 2.7 million in May, the highest since May 2005.

“We are in a deep crisis,” said Moscovici. “The crisis is economic for the people, but for the government, the crisis is political.”

Plunging polls and serving two posts

Sunday’s resignations came as the opinion polls showed the French president’s ratings slipping to a record low of 26 percent.


Another poll conducted before the resignations found 64 percent of French voters think their politicians are corrupt. Sixty percent of respondents said it was "shocking" that Woerth was both a minister and UMP treasurer.

“It’s not possible to be the treasurer of the majority UMP party as well as minister in the government because it creates confusion and there’s a conflict of interest, that’s absolutely clear,” said Moscovici.

Some analysts however believe that while the two junior ministers might have been sacrificed to protect Woerth, the coast is not necessarily clear for France’s embattled labour minister.

"This puts Woerth more in the firing line and makes his remaining in government until the vote on the pension reform more and more costly politically," said Jerome Sainte-Marie, president of the ISANA polling institute, in an interview with Reuters.

Woerth is expected to present the new proposed pension reform law to the French cabinet next week.


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