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Macron's 'Mister Pensions' resigns amid transparency scandal as strikes continue

Jean-Paul Delevoye, the former French High Commissioner for Pensions, in Paris on December 10. Delevoye submitted his resignation on Monday, December 16.
Jean-Paul Delevoye, the former French High Commissioner for Pensions, in Paris on December 10. Delevoye submitted his resignation on Monday, December 16. Benoit Tessier/REUTERS
Text by: Tracy MCNICOLL
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Video by: Erin Ogunkeye
9 min

As massive strikes over pension reform in France continue for a 12th day – with unions livid, for one, that workers under the revamp would have to work until age 64 to retire without penalty – one key player is already out of a job: The father of the reform, Jean-Paul Delevoye, stepped down Monday under the glare of a transparency scandal.

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Delevoye, the High Commissioner for Pensions, handed in his resignation to President Emmanuel Macron, who accepted it “with regret”, after a tumultuous week for the reform's point man, a longtime conservative former senator, minister and national ombudsman.

Named by Macron in September 2017 to lay the groundwork for the freshly elected leader’s sweeping pension overhaul, the 72-year-old Delevoye was drafted into the cabinet in September 2019 to pursue the reform that was finally rolled out last week. He was dubbed “Mister Pensions” as he puzzled out the controversial switch to a points-based retirement system, conducting consultations over the hot-button reform with unions, officials and ordinary citizens across the country over the course of 18 months.

But soon after crippling transit strikes against the planned reform began this month, it became clear in a drumbeat of media revelations that Delevoye had failed to declare multiple side jobs, both voluntary and paid, that he kept after joining the government. Some, like his role with the French Federation for Diabetics or with two classical music associations, caused little intrinsic alarm, but others were more problematic.

As the alleged irregularities came to light, one political cartoonist depicted Delevoye as a human advent calendar. “Every day, a new conflict of interest,” Sanaga quipped over a figure of Delevoye bedecked with numbered doors.

One of the voluntary positions Delevoye alleged he forgot to declare to France’s High Authority for Transparency in Public Life (HATVP), the post of administrator for an insurance training institute, exposed him to conflict of interest allegations because the insurance sector could stand to profit should the pension revamp come to pass.

Over the weekend, the daily Le Monde obtained and published details of the revised statement Delevoye submitted to the HATVP in which he declared 13 positions, including 11 in which he is still active – ten more positions than he had declared in his initial statement to the transparency body.

Meanwhile, one paid post Delevoye had indeed declared, his role as the president of the Parallaxe education policy think tank, was not allowed by France's  constitution, which prohibits members of the government from occupying remunerated positions while serving in cabinet. Delevoye told Le Monde he did not know about the rule and had not been told of it even after he duly declared the position.

Despite the revelations, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe persisted in lauding Delevoye’s probity, underscoring the political veteran’s “total good faith” over the weekend.

Transparency after Cahuzac

The HATVP was created in 2013 to promote transparency in the wake of an embarrassing scandal at the pinnacle of power known as the Cahuzac Affair, named for Jérôme Cahuzac, who in 2012 as an embattled budget minister facing tax fraud allegations went so far as to deny any wrongdoing on the floor of the lower-house National Assembly. Cahuzac was eventually convicted of tax evasion and money laundering.

“When I became high commissioner in the government, I was extremely attentive with regard to my declaration of assets and, having always considered that that which is declared should be verified by experts, I called upon a chartered public accountant,” Delevoye told Le Monde on Saturday. “I admit that I didn’t pay the same attention to my declaration of interests, probably because I felt I had no conflicts of interest and because I was obsessed with my declaration of assets,” he added. Both statements are mandatory today for some 15,000 public and elected officials in France.

'An embarrassing position for the government' as French pensions chief resigns
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The HATVP will review Delevoye’s case – “as initially planned”, despite his resignation – on Wednesday. The anti-corruption group Anticor appealed to the body to review Delevoye’s case last Tuesday after the first apparent irregularities in his conflict of interest statement came to light.

“I think the High Authority will take the case to the public prosecutor. There is little chance that it doesn’t do so given the amplitude of the omissions,” Anticor’s president, Jean-Christophe Picard, told BFM TV after Delevoye stepped down. “I don’t see how he could escape even a symbolic conviction over the fact that he clearly forgot, quote unquote, ten positions,” Picard added.

In a statement to Agence France-Presse after stepping down, Delevoye said his credibility had been sullied by “violent attacks” by unions and opposition politicians in an effort to discredit the pension reform plan.

“This project is essential for France. My staying would weaken it,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

Monday’s events will nevertheless be seen as a blow to Macron as the standoff with unions continues over his signature pension reform. The president’s office said the high commissioner would be replaced “as soon as possible”.

Indeed, while union leaders expressed “shock” as the allegations against him swelled, Delevoye had been by all accounts well-suited to the “Mister Pensions” role, a man with a knack for dialogue. “On substance…he knows the subject very well,” CFDT union chief Laurent Berger told France Info radio Monday. “He is the one who best knows the positions of the different interlocutors.”

The nationwide strikes, which have inflicted their heaviest gridlock on the French capital, are poised to continue with a fresh day of major multi-sector work stoppages and demonstrations slated for Tuesday and fears building that the transit chaos could continue through the holiday season.

(with AFP and REUTERS)

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