France’s center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) has accrued a debt of over 74.5 million euros, according to a recent audit of the party accounts. This latest revelation could prove to be the final blow for a party marred in scandals that has so far proven incapable of actively opposing the policies of French President François Hollande.
Under any normal circumstance, France’s UMP should be currently enjoying its time in opposition to French President François Hollande. Indeed, Hollande’s economic policy has proven to be disastrous: unemployment is up, growth is stagnant, and the President’s approval rating is at an all time low. The President’s grand strategy to fix France’s considerable issues is pinned on a “responsibility pact” where the president will reduce certain corporate taxes in an effort to boost hiring and increase ‘social dialogue.’ Already, this policy has proven to be shaky with the vaunted ‘social conference’ this week yielding few results and including the boycott of numerous left-leaning labor organizations.
Amongst all this division, it would seem logical that the main opposition parties would be having a field day and would soar on record waves of popularity. Not so. In fact, since Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat at the hands of Hollande in 2012, his party has been in complete disarray. Following Sarkozy’s loss and subsequent removal from politics (read more about that here), the party held a leadership election which resulted in deep internal divisions and accusations of corruption. Indeed the eventual winner, Jean-François Copé, happened to be in charge of organizing and overseeing the election – obviously leading to allegations of corruption after the official results.
This internal battle led to a schism between backers of Copé and his rival, former Prime Minister François Fillon. Rather than addressing the numerous problems France was facing and, in turn, producing viable policy alternatives, the party was stuck between two warring factions with the looming notion of a Sarkozy comeback. It is therefore no surprise that since the election in fall 2012, Fillon’s approval rating has fallen from 44% to 32% this month. Similarly, Copé’s approval rating has fallen from 26% to a meager 11% this month.
Although this fratricidal conflict would seemingly be enough to tarnish the image of the party, a series of scandals have exploded of late further constricting the ability of the opposition party to act. The most notable of these affaires is the ‘Bygmalion’ scandal where it is alleged that the party used fake invoices from a French PR firm with close ties to Copé to cover up expenses from Sarkozy’s 2012 reelection campaign. These accusations have led to the resignation of Copé (more on that here) and his entire leadership team – further plunging the crippled party into political and legal turmoil.
As part of the official internal investigation into the affair, an audit of the party’s accounts was carried out. The results of this audit are frankly shocking. In addition to a whopping debt of over 70 million euros, the party has footed the bill for unreasonable expenses including the 10,000-euro phone bill of an elected official, pricey helicopter rides for Fillon, and airfare for Copé’s wife. Yet in addition to this seemingly frivolous spending, the audit has led to another wave of finger pointing and accusations with no leader accepting the blame for this monstrous debt.
Although it seems like this problem is entirely the fault of the politicians, the truth is the institution itself has facilitated this reckless of behavior. Today, the UMP is run almost like a communist party with an obscure ‘nomination committee’ designating the party’s candidates for all elections. What’s more, the party is financed for the most part by public money, further centralizing power amongst the few leaders of the party and reducing outside accountability. Thus the leaders of the party are both able to designate candidates and are ultimately held accountable to no one outside the ballot box. Even then, their heritage as the only major center-right party in France gives the UMP an infallible base of support. Yet, infallible does not mean perpetual. Indeed if the party continues on its current trajectory, it is likely that it will push its traditional base closer to the extreme right National Front. This likelihood became reality in May when the FN won the European Parliamentary Elections in France.
The solutions to this problem might, in fact, not be that complicated. Indeed, two quick policy changes can go a long way to correcting the course of the UMP and setting it on a more stable path:
1. Get rid of the secret nomination procedure and replace it with open and neutral primaries.
Open primaries significantly reduce the amount of power that leaders of a political party have. They can no longer trade nominations for favors or stifle youth and innovation. Instead, they are giving the reins of the party back to the voters. However, for primaries to be effective, they must be genuinely democratic and open. That is to say, Jean-François Copé should not be organizing any votes that he is involved in. In fact, a neutral third party should ideally organize and oversee the votes: perhaps the government can go about creating one? That would be a particularly useful reform!
2. Change political finance laws in France.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe the American system of campaign finance post-Citizen’s United is abhorrent. Money does have a place in politics, however it needs to be restricted and clearly defined. That said, the advantage of having money in politics is that it creates accountability. Party donors, from the smallest to the largest, have a stake in their party. Currently, public financing massively overshadows the donation system in France. Therefore, to counteract this problem, public financing should be lowered to a base amount for each political party with representation over 5%. Concurrently, the laws governing individual donations should be changed to entice parties to seek donations.
Ultimately, the goal of both reforms is to take power from the small group of leaders that run French parties with complete impunity and transfer it to the rank and file party members, or the militants as they are known in French.
The most recent crisis at the UMP is but one example of the kind of mismanagement embodied by professional politicians with little accountability. What illustrates this point better than a party, ostensibly calling for fiscal restraint, accumulating a near 75 million euro debt?
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