Keeping Tabs On All the (French) President's Men

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As political scandals go, the "Benalla" affair that has gripped France since Le Monde broke the story on July 18 is certainly no Watergate. But it does point to a combination of unbridled executive power and secrecy in French politics that might make even Capitol Hill blush. Considering Emmanuel Macron's waning popularity and relatively low public trust in government, an overhaul of the rules is overdue.

The outrage over footage of presidential aide Alexandre Benalla, donning a police helmet (he's not a policeman) and beating up protesters has less to do with the act itself than the cover-up that ensued. Benalla was only dismissed after the footage was leaked to the media, and his actions were never reported to the public prosecutor. The 26-year-old reportedly enjoyed a bewildering array of perks -- from a chauffeur-driven car to an apartment in a chic area of Paris. Even his job title and salary were shrouded in mystery, feeding the image of an inner circle that blurred normal boundaries.

President Macron's dismissive reaction -- "it's a storm in a teacup" -- reflects the near invincibility of French presidents when they're buttressed by a parliamentary majority. Prime ministers and governments are commonly described as "fuses" that can be tripped before any crisis engulfs the president. There is an impeachment process, but it's a complex and tortuous one that has never been used. Opposition politicians may be lining up no-confidence motions, but they're unlikely to get very far.

Yet the reaction also says a lot about the growing backlash against the transparency deficit in the corridors of power. The drive for more disclosure and a higher standard of ethics in French public life is a fairly recent one, energized by the shock revelation that a top minister under Macron's predecessor, Francois Hollande, committed tax fraud. A similar backlash ended the 2017 presidential hopes of one-time favorite Francois Fillon, who put his wife and other family members on the payroll when he was in parliament. Requirements to disclose sources of wealth and conflicts of interest have only been in place since 2014, and not all of the data is put online. A national register for lobbyists was set up only last year.

These measures have gone in the right direction, but they also fall short. Benalla's job status allowed him to circumvent disclosure requirements, according to Le Monde, thanks to hazy definitions of who has to disclose what. The budget of the presidential palace is still relatively opaque, even after more disclosure and an annual report by the national audit body were required. And Benalla's ability to pose as a policeman calls into question recent moves to improve police transparency with ID badges.

The deeper problem is not so much that Macron's image will be tarred if he is seen as overly authoritarian -- every French president gets compared to the Sun King at one moment or another. It's that trust in institutions risks being eroded. France is ranked No. 23 on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, better than Italy but worse than the U.K., the U.S., Japan and Germany. Trust in government as tracked by the OECD is around 30 percent, below the average of around 40 percent. Corruption scandals can influence elections, as Macron knows.

With luck, this affair will strengthen the case for change. Beyond tightening existing rules, there is more that could be done. The expenses of French parliamentarians aren't systematically disclosed as they are in the U.S. or U.K., and it's still possible for deputies to employ members of their family or hold a different job on the side, such as lawyer or consultant, with few limits. More oversight and transparency when it comes to advisers to ministers and the President, whose appointments and roles are opaque would also help, suggests University College London Professor Philippe Marliere.

Macron made "audacious" executive power his watch-word when he was elected, promising voters a stop to cautious, easily cowed ministers. If he wants to keep using that power for good in his drive to reform France, he should make sure it's harder to abuse as well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance and markets. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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