Little did I suspect when I wrote that I hoped François Bayrou would do no harm as the Minister of Justice (“Putting his best foot forward” – May 22) that the only harm he would do would be to himself! This week, he resigned from the government, only a month after taking office, following the resignation of two other ministers and members of his party, MoDEM. We are told that he remains on good terms with President Macron. The reasons for his resignation say as much about him and his career as a party leader as it does about the shifts in public opinion.
The reason for his resignation was the opening of a preliminary judicial investigation into allegations of fiddling European Parliament allowances. Six members of his MoDEM party were elected to the Parliament in 2009. Bayrou was not one of the six but at the time he was, and still is, the leader of his party. Each MEP is entitled to three parliamentary assistants to help with work on European affairs and each is paid about €7800 a month. With such generous allowances, it is of course tempting for any leader of a national party to use some of the money to pay party employees in the home country, in this case France, to discharge normal party duties that have little or nothing to do with European affairs. This is precisely what Bayrou’s party is accused of. One of the six MEPs, Corinne Lepage, a former minister and respected lawyer specialised in environmental matters, later resigned from the party and explained in a book (“Les Mains Propres” - Editions Autrement, 2015) how the party had deliberately diverted EP allowances in this way and that Bayrou not only knew about it but actively encouraged it in order to inject much needed funds into the party’s coffers. Curiously, her book went more or less unnoticed at the time, by the media at least. It was only this year, with the presidential election campaign in full swing, that Marine le Pen, another former MEP who is also accused of fiddling allowances, denounced other parties in France, including MoDEM, for doing the same. The media suddenly started taking an interest. This past week, following the routine resignation of Edouard Philippe’s first government after the parliamentary elections, in the expectation that it would be immediately re-appointed, the Minister of Defence, Sylvie Goulard, former MEP and member of MoDEM, who had made a promising start to her ministerial career, surprisingly ruled herself out of the new government, stating that she wanted to be free to defend herself in the allowances investigation and claiming that she had always acted in good faith as an MEP. This was apparently a coded message to her MoDEM colleagues that she would not cover the party’s misdeeds and that if the investigation went further, she would say exactly what she had been asked, or obliged, to do by her party’s leadership. This statement clearly put pressure on Bayrou himself who, ironically, was about to present draft legislation on greater transparency and integrity in public life! (la moralisation de la vie publique). He chose, naturally enough, to fall before he was pushed, together with his No. 2, Marielle de Sarnez, who had also been appointed a minister in the same government, and who is one of the six MEPs accused of fiddling.
Whether the preliminary investigation leads to Bayrou himself being placed under formal investigation (mis en examen) or not, this whole episode shows that public opinion is increasingly intolerant of politicians who fiddle their expenses or otherwise abuse their privileges. I wrote in a previous post (“The slow revenge of Eva Joly” – March 22) that France is now moving slowly but surely towards more Nordic standards of public life. The latest events are likely to speed things up. As a journalist stated very aptly on the radio this morning, just a few years ago a minister would only have to resign if he was actually convicted of fiddling expenses or tax evasion. More recently, ministers placed under formal investigation have been expected to resign. Thanks probably to the attitude of François Fillon, who said that he would no longer be a candidate for the presidency if he were placed under formal investigation but then did the opposite when he was, public opinion has shifted even further. This time, three ministers have resigned only after being named as suspects in a preliminary investigation. An opinion poll taken two days after Bayrou’s resignation shows that nearly 60% of respondents consider he has done the right thing. Inasmuch as President Macron is thought to be behind it, it has not done his approval ratings any harm either.
The legislation on more transparency and integrity in public life will now be taken up by the new Minister of Justice, Nicole Belloubet, a respected legal practitioner, sometime local politician and member of the French Constitutional Council, little known outside her profession. As Emmanuel Macron continues to stoke the fires of his peaceful revolution, the sparks are beginning to fly in all directions. The labour unions will probably be the next to feel the heat…. but then that is a story that is yet to be told.