A Reform Beyond Macron’s Grip: The Revolving Door of Politics

If France’s president can overpower Donald Trump with a handshake, why can’t he keep bureaucrats from running for office? 

Emmanuel Macron.

Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to change how politics is done in France, starting with the parliament to be elected beginning Sunday. Half of the 500-plus candidates for his young party are women. Half have never held office. They all had to apply online.

But he isn’t taking the biggest step: requiring that anyone running for parliament resign from his or her government job.

Unlike many other other developed countries, France allows bureaucrats to hold political office—multiple offices, in fact—without having to quit the civil service. And they have a guaranteed right to return. Should the bureaucrat-candidate lose an election, there’s a job for life waiting back at the Agriculture Ministry or the Ministry for Overseas Territories. And a pension at retirement.

Having lawmakers remain part of the civil service creates conflicts of interest, said Dominique Reynie, head of Fondapol, a political research institute.

“You have lawmakers making funding decisions about institutions such as universities and hospitals where they are still officially employed,” he said. “We have a parliament that’s inbred.”

Among the many beneficiaries of the system: Macron’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, several others in the cabinet and fully 55 percent of the parliament that just finished its five-year term. Macron himself, though he’s never been in parliament, kept bureaucrat status through several government and private jobs until he resigned last year to start his political party.

The 55 percent of the departing parliament that’s civil servants, according to a study by the Diderot Institute, isn’t quite the highest ever. But it’s more than in the previous parliament and far higher than in the early decades of the 59-year-old Fifth Republic.

“France is one of the rare countries in Europe where a civil servant can serve an elected mandate without resigning, and with the certainty of going back to their job in case of failure,” said Luc Rouban, a professor at Sciences Po in Lille who has compiled a database of all 2,857 French members of parliament back to 1958. “The absence of professional risk encourages employees from the public sector to run for office.”

Macron, 39, was a high-level functionary in the Finance Ministry after attending the National School of Administration, a top university known as ENA whose graduates are automatically granted lifetime bureaucrat status. He took a leave from the civil service when he worked as an investment banker for Rothschild & Cie., returning to government as an adviser to then-President Francois Hollande and then as Economy Minister.

When he formed his political movement in April 2016, he had to pay 50,000 euros ($56,180) to buy his way out of the 10 years of civil service that ENA requires in return for a free education.

Edouard Philippe.
Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

Philippe, by contrast, hasn’t resigned.  He joined France’s top administrative court after graduating from ENA in 1997. Since then, he’s been an adviser at various ministries, worked at  state-controlled nuclear group Areva, was elected mayor of the port town of Le Havre in 2010 and has been a member of parliament since 2007. Upon becoming prime minister after Macron's victory last month, the 46-year-old resigned as mayor, but stayed a bureaucrat. He could go back to the administrative court at any time.

True, legislatures in other countries aren’t exact replicas of the population either. American members of Congress on average are nine times richer than their voters, according to the U.S. Center for Responsive Politics. In Britain, legislators are much better educated: one-quarter of the House of Commons graduated from Oxford or Cambridge universities.

Neither country allows bureaucrats to enter politics, however. In Britain, civil servants have had to resign before running since 1975. In the U.S., federal employees have been forbidden from engaging in political activity since the passage of the Hatch Act of 1939.

If Macron can impress the world with his bone-crushing grip during a handshake with President Donald Trump, why can’t he bring his country’s bureaucrat-politicans into line?

Jean-Paul Delevoye, head of the selection committee for Macron’s parliamentary campaign, said it’s too soon. 

“I would have liked to institute a rule that candidates have to step down from the civil service, and I think as a country we’ll eventually get there,” he said. But “I don’t think we are ready yet.”

Even though Macron’s political movement hasn’t forced candidates to quit the civil service, its other demands have limited the number of government workers in its ranks. Rouban said 33 percent of Republic on the Move’s 529 candidates are from the public sector. Those from the private sector are generally from small companies, with many consultants. Members of parliament from the private sector in the past have tended to be independent professionals, particularly lawyers.

Rouban said he doesn’t think the overrepresentation of civil servants subverts democracy. “We have a professional political class, but it grows out of local mandates, not from being civil servants,” he said. “Civil servants don’t tend to vote differently than others. They are driven more by their local roots than by their status.”

Those local links could weaken in the next parliament, which will be the first elected under new rules that limit the number of positions that lawmakers can hold at one time. In the last parliament, 80 percent of lawmakers also had another elected position, with 15 percent holding three or more.

A 2014 law now bars members of parliament from holding an executive local position, such as mayor or president of a region, though they can still be members of regional councils. Those new limits are one reason that only 60 percent of the outgoing parliament is running for re-election, down 80 percent in the last parliamentary elections five years ago.

Quitting the civil service would mean giving up a host of benefits. French fonctionnaires, as they are called, have a separate status from private sector workers, with different pay scales, work regulations and pension systems. 

“Requiring them to resign before running for parliament would be a very simple decision to enact,” said Reynie. “But they won’t do it because it would touch the core of the state. In France the state created the nation, not the other way around.”

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