Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Hollande and the French government's U-turn on the 'cumul des mandats'

So I lied. Waddya gonna do about it huh?
The French political system is a complex mix of institutional relationships which tie local government to national government and one of the most important cogs in the wheel is that of the 'cumul des mandats' - or multiple-office holding by politicians.

This practice means that parliamentary politicians may also hold local office at the same time, with over 80% of them doing so. They may be both mayors and senators, députés and general council presidents, EU parliament members and mayors and other combinations. It is possible in some circumstances to hold up to four different paid mandates at once. The widespread use of the cumul des mandats makes France unique in Europe given that in other countries the average number of 'cumulards' - politicians holding dual or even more office - is less than 10%.

Unsurprisingly, polls have consistently shown over the years that the vast majority of French citizens would like to see the system abolished, claiming that it results in a concentration of power in the hands of a small elite of politicians who control both local and national policy decisions, with the result that local political opposition is stifled by national interests as well as the personal interests of those politicians concerned.

Voters have long complained that their députés, mayors or other elected representatives are too often absent from their posts, leading to inefficiency, and that the opportunities that the system offers to those who would be tempted into corruption are rife. France is run by a relatively small group of notables who use their local influence to help their national careers and vice-versa, thus becoming a sort of permanent caste. Those députés serving as mayors in major cities and towns are very powerful people as they are able to pressurise their governments into more funding for projects for their cities as well as offering the party in power on a national level an unprecedented amount of financial support during election campaigns, which means that opposing candidates are unable to compete on equal terms.

The increase in voter discontent with the cumul des mandats over the years has led to several leading politicians on both left and right promising to have it abolished if they are elected, but once in power their promises are quickly forgotten, with the inevitable result that opposing parties cry the usual crocodile tears in public whilst being secretly happy that their dual mandates - along with their dual salaries and political influence - are safe.

Hopes were high therefore when François Hollande, supported by many senior members of the Socialist party, loudly promised during his election campaign that things would be different under him and that he would abolish the practice. Rank-and-file members were happy and so must have been many undecided voters. The socialists even issued a statement saying that whilst waiting for a law to be drawn up and voted the socialists would unilaterally divest themselves of excess mandates, adding that its parliamentary members had until yesterday, October 1, to resign from other mandates.

But it was not to be. Howls of protest began to be heard in lower parliamentary ranks as soon as the elections had ended and some députés, now safe in their seats although silent before they were elected, went on TV to express their opposition to the plan. And the 'resign-by' date? The official line is now that it was just a simple "appeal" and not an injunction. There was no cut-off date. It never existed.

The result is that out of 234 socialist députés who had more than one mandate at the beginning of September, only 11 resigned from their excess mandate. Also, out of the 577 députés from all parties who were elected in June 439 hold at least a double mandate, and 33 of them hold four.

François Hollande has quite simply done a U-turn on a key election promise and his cynical exploitation of popular opinion means that French politics on both a national and local level remains in the hands of a few.

The cumul des mandats system means that most French politicians and ministers cannot fully represent those who elected them at either local or government level and absenteeism from the National Assembly and town halls is widespread. The fact that 439 députés hold more than one mandate means that they have reserved hundreds of local mandates for themselves, thus excluding younger politicians and more women. This is stifling the renewal of the polical class whilst leaving ever more ageing politicians in power, to the point where more than half of all députés are now of pensionable age.

But perhaps the most unfair aspect of this system is that it is those very politicians who hold several mandates and who have every reason - political, financial, business and others - to want to maintain the status quo are the only people who could ever change it.

François Hollande may have been on a hiding to nothing in promising to abolish the cumul des mandates, but he knew that full well when he uttered his election promise. He deliberately misled the French people, who now have yet another good reason to believe that their politicians, including himself, are a self-serving elite.

Plus ça change....

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