French Ministers Disclose Private Assets Amid Political Scandal

French President François Hollande responds to a financial scandal by obliging Cabinet members to publish details of their personal holdings — an unprecedented requirement

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The French have always had a difficult relationship with money — a love/hate affair that has left France’s rich and powerful as detested as they are envied by the rest of society. That tension came to the fore once more following the April 15 disclosure by French ministers of their personal wealth. That new obligation was denounced by critics as voyeuristic invasion in the private affairs of public officials, while backers praised it for shedding a little light on France’s opaque political class. The French public viewed it as both — and gobbled up details of their leaders’ holdings, even as a majority of people admitted their vote wouldn’t switch if preferred candidates turn out to be well-off.

Monday’s publication of personal holdings by all 38 Cabinet members sparked as much excitement in France as it did head-scratching in countries where some form of financial disclosure by government officials is routine. The move was imposed by French President François Hollande in response to tanking public confidence in the political class after his former Budget Minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, admitted he repeatedly lied in denying he’d maintained a secret bank account in Switzerland. Public reaction to the resulting scandal sent Hollande’s approval rating down to 26%.

(MORE: Swiss Account of Ex-Minister Further Darkens Hollande’s Political Fortunes)

“The End of a Taboo,” trumpeted the April 16 headline of the left-leaning daily Libération. In airing conservative hostility to the measure as a cheap distraction from the Cahuzac scandal, by contrast, right-wing paper Le Figaro dismissed the wealth disclosures as “The Striptease of the Republic.” The less partisan newspaper Le Parisien opted for a more factually accurate (albeit wordier and less sensational) option, with its front-page reaction: “38 Ministers, 37 Houses, 29 Apartments, 40 Cars, 2 Boats and Three Bikes …”

Indeed, the main takeaway from this parade of financial declarations — which are considered routine in Scandinavian countries and the U.S. — is if French pols are abusing their positions to fill their pockets, they’re doing a pretty cruddy job of it. Monday’s filings show the average value of assets owned by government members generally in line with the French median of $147,500. Those ranged from holdings of Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius of $8.5 million, to the $137,800 estate of Women’s Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem — whose loot includes a used scooter worth $650.

In addition to Paris apartments and vacation homes around the country which lavishness all came under scrutiny, the public and pundits gave a long look at Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg’s $5,590 Charles Eames armchair — quite a flourish for the government’s most militant and controversy-prone leftist.

Not everyone was amused by the exercise. Despite tight-lipped discipline among most members of Hollande’s leftist majority, it was clear few of France’s politicians were enthusiastic about the measure — and other transparency initiatives on the way. Last week, the Socialist parliamentary leader Claude Bartolone applauded efforts to increase accountability in politics, but said revealing legitimate private holdings to the public was tantamount to “voyeurism.”

Bartolone wasn’t alone in that. Opposition conservatives called the measure an outrageous invasion of privacy in response to a scandal plaguing Hollande. They also said such disclosures would fail to uncover secret holdings — which, like Cahuzac’s Swiss bank account, are by definition hidden away. Jean-François Copé, leader of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement party, not only attacked the transparency drive as inefficient, but also claimed it was mainly intended to help Hollande distract public attention from rising deficits, public debt and unemployment levels amid economic stagnation.

Some pundits were quick to note, however, that Copé isn’t ideally positioned to grade efforts to lift French politics beyond any approach. Copé — who doubles his work as a legislator with activity as a successful corporate lawyer — mounted opposition to failed 2011 proposals to introduce laws officially identifying and prohibiting conflict of interest in elected French positions.

Absence of such a law in France has bolstered public suspicions that elected officials are easily bought off by wealthy patrons or business lobbies. Recent polls have shown as many as 70% of respondents believe the nation’s politicians are corrupt — a sentiment that surged during the Cahuzac scandal. Those sentiments mingle, meanwhile, with France’s long-standing cultural suspicion and scorn of money — long viewed as a necessary evil required to lead a decent life, but also resented as the means with which the haves maintain their unmerited advantage over the majority of have-nots.

Those attitudes have been changing considerably in recent years — but apparently not enough to revolutionize French voting habits. An Ifop poll published on April 13 in the weekly Journal du Dimanche found 85% of people saying they believed France’s politicians were generally wealthier than average citizens. As a result, 63% called Hollande’s moves to create more transparency on the private holdings of elected officials “necessary in a modern democracy.” But what that may change in political terms is unclear: 70% of respondents to the Ifop poll also noted they’d be “indifferent” to news a politician who shared their ideological outlook was filthy rich as well.

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