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article imageOp-Ed: Bettancourt affair - The end of the French political model?

By Michael Cosgrove     Jul 10, 2010 in Politics
Secretly-taped conversations, vicious political tactics, ministerial resignations, multiple accusations of corruption and a high-society family drama, French society is settling old scores and creating new and dangerous divisions. What is happening?
It all began with the press getting hold of what seemed at the time to be a run-of-the-mill story concerning secret recordings of conversations between France’s richest woman, L’Oreal boss Liliane Bettancourt, and her entourage by her head butler. It then turned out that the conversations were said to concern financial operations in view of tax avoidance by Bettancourt. French Minister of Labor Eric Woerth was mentioned in this context as was his wife, who worked for a tax advisory consultancy which worked for Mme Bettancourt. Mme Woerth has since resigned.
This led to remarks by parliamentary Socialist opposition party leader Martine Aubrey comparing President Nicolas Sarkozy to Bernard Madoff, and it wasn’t long before Woerth found himself the object of widespread rumours and accusations both in press and political circles claiming that he helped Mme Bettancourt to avoid tax audits and controls and that she had given him illegal cash payments destined to help finance the President’s electoral campaign. Accusations of conflicts of interests also surfaced because M Woerth was also the treasurer of M Sarkozy’s UMP party, which ran the President’s campaign.
Those accusations were corroborated by Mme Bettancourt’s ex-accountant Claire Thibout, in a statement to police that Woerth had received €150,000 in cash. She has since partially retracted that statement after her allegations were debunked by other witnesses, and is now in her turn being accused of bowing to presidential pressure.
The number of allegations continued, and two government ministers, Alain Joyandet and Christian Blanc, resigned following press publication of documents purporting to prove that they used taxpayer’s money to hire a private plane, buy expensive Cuban cigars and renovate property.
At the same time, Bettancourt’s daughter Françoise, herself immensely rich, has embarked on a highly-publicized lawsuit to get her mother’s companion and advisor François-Marie Banier to repay over €1bn he is said to have received from her mother. He has been charged with abusing her position as a vulnerable person for financial gain, along with several other advisers. Mother and daughter are estranged, at least for the moment, and they are said not to be on talking terms.
As of today, several police, judicial and fiscal investigations have begun to try and get to the bottom of this highly complex affair with its daily cortege of new information, and lawsuits for slander are being thrown around like confetti by all concerned.
The Socialists have had a field day with all this, and calls for Woerth’s resignation and presidential explanations are growing louder by the day. Despite everything, the government and Sarkozy have rallied round Woerth and insist that all this is a smear campaign designed to stop Woerth pushing his highly-controversial pensions reform bill through parliament. The president is scheduled to address the nation on Monday and is expected to try to calm things down whist at the same time continuing to support Woerth.
Public outrage at these events is inevitably unanimous and extremely hostile, with polls declaring that public mistrust of politicians has reached record levels. Comment boards on all the dailies have been besieged by citizens expressing their disgust, although precisely who they are disgusted with is more difficult to discern. Some are demanding resignations, including Sarkozy’s, whilst others are busy expressing their anger at what they consider to be a cynical opposition campaign to destabilize him and his government.
This affair began as an ‘everyday’ political scandal but it has quickly mushroomed into a national obsession, with the public mood having changed from initial outrage into a kind of dark and brooding cynicism.
The numerous editorials and public debate forums here are fairly unanimous in their opinion that France’s political model may have reached the end of the road and that it is more than time for change.
It is commonly believed that the French political system is out-dated compared to those in place in other major nations and that shady dealings between politicians and the rich and powerful are being deliberately hidden from the public on far too many occasions. I agree with that assessment.
The last 20 years of France’s political history have been marked by several major scandals involving politicians and corruption but there have been few prosecutions of major politicians or businessmen. A typical trick is to drag out investigations, trials and appeals to a point where they are terminated by 10-year proscription laws.
Things could be different this time though, as this affair is rocking the state to its foundations, with front pages carrying many stories on it each day – up to eight in one case – and it is hard to see how Woerth, Sarkozy and the government can get out of this predicament unscathed. With public confidence in them and politics in general so low, and the system itself being openly called into question, public figures need to find ways of lowering the currently high levels of public anger.
In other words, if the Bettancourt affair isn’t managed in a way which reduces the public’s pessimism in a durable and convincing manner, hostility will increase and events could turn serious.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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