New public ethics bill aims to repair France's battered trust in politicians

François Guillot, AFP | French Justice Minister François Bayrou gives a press conference on the "moralisation of public life" bill, on June 1, 2017, in Paris.

French Justice Minister François Bayrou on Thursday outlined a new bill to promote probity in politics, a first major legislative initiative for President Emmanuel Macron’s government at a time where mistrust of elected officials is soaring.


Bayrou told reporters at a press conference in Paris that the legislation, dubbed the Bill for Confidence in our Democratic Life, will in part involve revisions to the country’s constitution, including the elimination of the Court of Justice of the Republic, a body that handles cases brought against members of the government – instead of the regular French court system -- for infractions alleged to have taken place while a minister was in office.

The legislation’s stated goals are to promote transparency, avoid conflicts of interest and revamp party financing in order to prevent future scandals and inspire trust in France’s democratic institutions. The move is also meant to make good on a campaign pledge by the political neophyte Macron, who ran as an independent candidate, to promote ethics in French politics.

As it happens, Bayrou made his presentation to the press on the same day a public prosecutor in the northwestern French city of Brest announced he was opening a preliminary inquiry into allegations against Richard Ferrand, the minister of territorial planning who has been under heavy political and media scrutiny for more than a week over allegations of impropriety. Bayrou showily refused to discuss the Ferrand case, brandishing a red Penal Code book at the podium and reading out the role of a justice minister in order to justify not doing so.

The new set of rules Bayrou presented will forbid parliamentarians from hiring family members, a hot topic in recent months after scandals involving disgraced conservative presidential candidate François Fillon shone a spotlight on the practise. Fillon and his wife Penelope have both been charged in that case, although the charges pertain, in part, not to whether Fillon should have hired his spouse as a parliamentary assistant but whether she in fact carried out the work she was employed to perform.

“For years -- and in recent months in particular have been very prolific in this domain… we saw practises develop that jeopardised, that cracked and fractured the confidence that citizens must have in their elected officials,” Bayrou told reporters in Paris on Thursday. “It is no longer about deciding on this or that individual behaviour, nor about adopting half-measures in reaction to this or that event and to forget them afterward,” he added. “The real issue is to adopt a comprehensive approach fit to restore citizens’ confidence in public action.”

The proposed reforms also forbid elected officials (with the exception of small-town mayors) from serving for more than three consecutive terms in the same office. They also ban government ministers from concurrently holding elected executive offices in local government.

If the legislation passes, former presidents will no longer have an automatic seat on the country’s Constitutional Council as they do now.

Parliamentarians who do not demonstrate that they have met their fiscal responsibilities are slated to lose their seats and any parliamentarian who has been convicted on probity offenses will be ineligible to serve for a period of ten years, if the bill passes.

New measures also address the need for more transparency in political financing. One measure proposed is the creation of a “Bank of Democracy” that would lend funds to political parties and candidates standing for election provided they can prove they are solvent. That proposal addresses a longstanding complaint of Front National leader Marine Le Pen, who has often spoken of domestic banks declining to fund her party, a political pariah, forcing her to look to banks in Russia and elsewhere for financing.

While the legislative ball is due to get rolling on this bill when it is presented to Macron’s cabinet on June 14, its smooth passage likely depends on Macron earning a majority in upcoming legislative elections on June 11 and 18.

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