Liberte, egalite, venalite

January 27, 1995

According to political scientist Yves Meny, the recent corruption scandals in France have very deep roots. Anne Corbett reports. As the wave of French corruption allegations known as "Les Affaires" rolls on and the country's parliament debates anti-corruption measures, the French political scientist, Yves Meny, keeps being asked whether France is following Italy down the path of moral bankruptcy to the collapse of the state.

Meny, whom Le Monde once called "the intellectual godfather" of anti-corruption measures in France, first outlined his innovative argument in La Corruption de la Republique, a seminal work currently being reprinted.

His thesis is that we need to be concerned about the corruption of politics, and not simply corruption in politics. He argues that the political and economic elites of France should indeed look to Italy, where the traditional governing classes have been forced to give way to those populists who, as he puts it, "despise political parties and tend to end up despising democracy". Meny knows about Italy. He directs the political science centre at the European University in Florence, on leave of absence from Paris's Institut d'Etudes Politiques.

Corruption, he says, grows out of a particular political system. "The only effective way to counter corruption is to understand the mechanisms from which it springs."

So far the tally of corruption charges in France has led to preventive detention for a minister, the president of a departmental council and a leading industrialist. Five other ministers and almost 30 deputies face charges of illicitly financing their parties and in some cases of enriching themselves personally. There must be more charges to follow as investigating magistrates home in on the political and economic networks of the highest names in the land -- though there are also dozens, maybe hundreds, who can heave a sigh of relief thanks only to a 1990 amnesty.

These examples of corruption are a product of the same sort of climate as Britain's "sleaze" cases or Italy's "dirty hands". The French "model" was spawned by a centralised and highly regulated society which dates back to the Ancien Regime. It is typified by excessive regulation of the individual -- an inheritance of monarchs' fear of their subjects -- and ways of paying officials that hark back to the 17th century.

Such a structure is highly conducive to corruption. A society overloaded with regulations incites people to dream up ways to get round them. When Robin Hood takes on the Leviathan state and wins, he is naturally enough applauded.

Conflict of interest is structural. Big decisions in politics and the economic world emerge from the balance struck between responsibilities which often set national and local, or public and private sector interests against each other.

These can make people neglect the divide between professional and personal interests, sometimes because of the survival of practices like cumul des mandats (simultaneously holding several offices), pantouflage (moving from the civil service into a private sector job which is often related) and interessement (taking a financial cut from public sector work such as civil engineering projects).

Meny challenges the orthodox line by arguing that you cannot draw a line between corruption for personal benefit and that for party gain. Conflict is integral to the system when every leader wears several hats. A mayor has executive and budgetary powers and also chairs the local council. A deputy -- in 95 per cent of cases -- also holds at least one other public office (president of a region or departmental council, mayor of a large town or MEP).

These are factors which incite corrupt practices, especially since decentralisation, which gave planning powers to most of France's 36,000 mayors. Added to that, France's elite has a tiny base -- the provincial (political) notables and the grands corps d'etat such as the inspecteurs des ponts et chaussees, between them tie up most of the public and much of the private sector. The wonder, says Meny, is not that there is so much corruption but so little.

Meny, who is known to British politics students for his textbooks on western Europe, dates his interest to the 1970s when he was telling students that it was clear from the scale of activity that political parties were receiving illicit funds "but we don't know the mechanisms''. At the time he pursued his grassroots research as far as the socialist party treasurer. The reply was: "Delighted to help, my dear man -- on condition the other party treasurers help too.'' At the time, that ended the investigation.

Now that his book is being reprinted, without a word being changed, Meny sees his concerns as reinforced. "If you ask me what worries me most about the French situation,'' says Meny, "it is the total indifference of elites to the concept of conflict of interest."

He himself fears that there could be a backlash in France, as in Italy, despite France's much stronger state and its much weaker parties. Indeed, this quiet and reasonable man goes on to say dramatically that France is "fortunate that the next election is presidential'' -- ie crucial for the national interest. He thinks that in the present climate other elections would be used for settling accounts which would bring populists to the fore.

In the circumstances, he is unimpressed with proposals from the prime minister, Edouard Balladur, which suggest more rules -- "to be broken'' says Meny. He will only take reforms seriously the day a government abolishes its Ancien Regime practices -- le cumul des mandats, pantouflage and interessement.

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