PARIS — Even before he has a parliament, France’s new president has embarked on a lofty mission: “moralizing public life” in a political system rife with nepotism and conflicts of interest.
After a scandal-ridden presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron has billed the new regulations — formally presented Thursday by François Bayrou, Macron’s justice minister — as good-faith efforts intended to set a positive tone for his presidency, the first from outside France’s traditional party structures.
“Today, the principal danger to democracy is the persistence of breaches of honesty among politicians whose behavior is unworthy of the position of representative of the people,” reads Macron’s campaign platform.
And so the 39-year-old president’s idea is to hold lawmakers accountable to the public they serve. If approved, Macron’s new regulations would, among other things, eradicate conflicts of interest through heavy vetting, ban lawmakers from hiring family members to administrative positions and limit them to three consecutive terms of service.
These, anti-corruption analysts say, are essential for restoring the public trust in a system increasingly seen as defined by money, special interests and family dynasties. Bayrou said Thursday that the measures would bring France onboard the “global approach to restoring the confidence of citizens,” referring to similar policies established in Germany and much of Scandinavia.
In the end, “breaches of honesty” among politicians were a mainstay of France’s recent election, probably its most contentious in decades. Although Macron, an independent centrist, ultimately won that contest in a landslide, significant numbers of French voters abstained in both rounds of the vote — many because of an apparent disgust with a political class often criticized for endemic corruption.
“There is in France today a grave crisis of confidence between citizens and the elected — there is just so much distrust of our institutions and the elected,” said Daniel Lebègue, the head of Transparency International France, a leading anti-corruption nongovernmental organization, in an interview.
In late January, for instance, Le Canard Enchaîné, a French satirical newspaper, alleged that Francois Fillon, a conservative initially expected to win the election handily, had employed his wife and two of his children for jobs they never did while paying them about 900,000 euros in public funds as compensation.
Nearly 1 in 6 representatives in the French parliament employ family members, according to data collected by the newspaper Le Monde earlier this year.
But the perception of corruption did not stop with the Fillon scandal, or even with the election. Bruno Le Roux, an interim prime minister, resigned in March after acknowledging that he had done precisely the same as Fillon, employing his two daughters as administrative assistants on public salaries while serving in parliament several years ago.
And then there were the perpetual allegations against the far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen, Macron’s principal rival in the final round of the election.
The European Parliament alleged that Le Pen owed about 300,000 euros in misspent funds she has repeatedly refused to repay. During Le Pen’s tenure as a deputy in Strasbourg, the parliament claimed, the National Front leader illegally paid her party’s staff with funds from the multistate bloc.
Finally, there was the December 2016 conviction for criminal negligence of Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister and current head of the International Monetary Fund, found guilty of orchestrating a government payout to the tycoon Bernard Tapie during her time in office nearly a decade ago. Lagarde was not sentenced to a fine or jail time in that case, but the verdict ultimately strengthened the assumption of money's outsize role in French politics.
Macron, a former investment banker, was often criticized during the campaign for his own financial ties.
“Macron wants to re-create a climate of trust between the citizens and the elected. He wants to give oxygen to democratic life in France — and for this it’s indispensable to reinforce the transparency of public life,” Lebègue said.
But the Macron administration has recently faced corruption charges of its own — charges that critics say could undermine the push to moralize public life.
Two of the new president’s ministers face mounting pressure to resign: Richard Ferrand, the urban planning minister, for reports of financial misconduct; and Marielle de Sarnez, a junior minister, for inappropriately hiring an unnecessary assistant during her tenure in the European Parliament.
On Thursday — the same day Macron’s measures were formally announced — a public prosecutor opened an investigation into the case of Ferrand, mostly for having used business contacts for personal gain. Both Ferrand and de Sarnez have denied any wrongdoing.
By Friday, 54 percent of French voters said that Ferrand should resign, according to a poll by the Odoxa agency.
But Macron continued to stand his ground, despite his commitment to anti-corruption measures.
“Things are not always good when the press becomes the judge,” his spokesman told reporters Wednesday.