Corruption and privileges

June 10, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Just before tearing itself apart about whether gay people should be allowed to marry, France has gone through another political financial scandal. This is not an uncommon occurrence. We tend not to care very much about our politicians cheating on their wives, or even, like one of our former presidents, having two families complete with a hidden daughter. We tend to be less tolerant with embezzlement and tax fraud, which does not keep them from happening with a troubling regularity.

In this particular case it was Jerome Cahuzac, a socialist minister in charge of the budget, who was discovered to have a secret account in a Swiss bank for tax fraud purposes. Jerome Cahuzac being the political head of French IRS, it was, let’s say, embarrassing. Of course, Jerome Cahuzac was "advised" to resign, both as a minister and a Member of Parlement. After another round of "advice", he has finally decided not to run in the coming by-election in what used to be his constituency.

Politics being what it is, the affair prompted a round of half-hearted reforms, with ministers forced to disclose their fortune, then faded out of the headlines in the wake of the gay marriage controversy. However, it is only a matter of time before another scandal surfaces. As I have said, those scandals are relatively common in French history and Frenchmen somewhat expect their politicians to use their position to get, if not rich, at least wealthy.

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When the regime is weak, however, or when the country goes through a crisis, this can lead to drastic changes in government. I don’t think this will be the case, directly, for the Cahuzac affair, but the general climate it breeds certainly will pave the way for it. There are, indeed, certainly precedents for this in French history.

The first to come to my mind is, of course, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which prepared the way for the French Revolution. In 1772, Louis XV had ordered for his mistress, Madame du Barry, a diamond necklace costing some 2,000,000 livres – a huge amount of money, even for a king. Louis XV, however, died before the necklace could be completed and Madame du Barry was banished from the court, so the jeweler found themselves with a hugely expensive jewel on their hands and nobody to sell it to, the new queen having refused to accept a necklace designed for a courtesan.

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In the meantime, a con-artist, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, "Comtesse de la Motte”, manipulated her lover, Louis René Édouard de Rohan, known as Cardinal de Rohan, into believing the queen was in love with him and arranged a meeting between him and the said queen, a prostitute passing herself off as a queen. She then “borrowed” a lot of money from the Cardinal, and bought her way into the high society.

She was then contacted by the jewelers who wanted to use her to sell their necklace. She accepted and told the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette wanted to buy the necklace, but wanted him to act as a secret intermediary… this worked well, until the Cardinal failed to paid the agreed upon amount and the jewelers complained to the queen about him. Let’s say Marie Antoinette was not amused.

Jeanne de la Motte was condemned to be whipped and branded then sent to life imprisonment in the Salpêtrière. She escaped, however and fled to London where she published a book entitled Memoires Justificatifs de La Comtesse de Valois de La Motte, which attempted to justify her actions while casting blame upon the queen. The Cardinal de Rohan, for one, was acquitted.

A lot of people were convinced the Queen had indeed a hand into the whole affair and had used La Motte as an instrument to discredit the Cardinal de Rohan. Rohan’s acquittal, of course, did not help and the queen’s approval rating plummeted with the consequences we all know.

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Another less well-known example is the Stavisky affair in 1934. Alexandre Satvisky was a French con-artist who had managed to put himself at the head of the municipal pawnshop of Bayonne. He used his position to sell worthless bonds, with fake emeralds as a surety. He used his political connections to avoid trial and continued his scams until December, when, faced with exposure, he fled. The police finally found him, mortally wounded, in January in Chamonix. He apparently had committed suicide, albeit in a bizarre way since the bullet had traveled an inconvenient three meters before hitting his head.

He had an extra-long arm, you see.

The affair finally went public and grew into a full-blown scandal, leading to the resignation of premier Camille Chautemps from the Radical-Socialist Party (which was neither radical nor socialist, by the way). His successor Édouard Daladier, dismissed the prefect of the Paris police, more to the right than Atilla the Hun Jean Chiappe. The result was a violent demonstration which degenerated into a coup attempt by various far right organizations such as the Action Française, the Croix-de-Feu and the Mouvement Franciste. Fourteen people were killed in the night of 6–7 February 1934. The Republic survived, barely, but Daladier had to resign and the left were faced with an immediate threat from the united far right, which led to the 1936 victory of the Popular Front.

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The Stavisky affair also triggered the founding of a far right terrorist organization La Cagoule in an general erosion of democratic values which would pave the way for the Vichy regime.

Of course, nobody has tried to storm the parliament in the wake of the Cahuzac affair. Its effects are more insidious but can be every bit as deleterious.

France is indeed facing a two-pronged long-term crisis which is slowly but surely destroying its social cohesiveness. Like all human societies, it suffers from the systemic effects of peak energy and peak complexity.

As the amount of net energy available to the society shrinks, it becomes less and less able to both maintain its infrastructure and actually do things. The result is that our infrastructures, both material and immaterial, decay, as does our ability to effect positive change. Alsp, our usual way of dealing with problems, that is increasing the complexity of the society, is becoming more and more counterproductive.

As always, in such a situation, the top tiers of the society, preserve their position by grabbing resources from those located lower in the hierarchy. In democracies, this mostly done in indirect ways, by dismantling institutions which benefit mostly the lower and middle strata of society: welfare, public education and services, collective transportation, subsidized medicine…

Moreover, we are slowly losing our privileged position as a first circle ally of the current world hegemon. Not only is the United States losing ground to China, but the center of world economic activities is drifting away from the Atlantic, making us more and more peripheral in world affairs. That means that our ability to profit from the imperial system set up by the USA (and from the remnants of our own Empire) is slowly dwindling.

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In such a situation, elections become more and more about gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana and less and less about wages and taxes. Mainstream politics sound then more and more like empty noises to the working class and to a significant part of the middle class.

This creates a disconnect between the population and the political class which grows more and more parasitical as the resources of the society diminish. This disconnect is bound to increase as various elites are forced into resource grabbing by the shrinking economy and competition between the various strata of the society sharpens.

In normal times, scandals, even though they can end the career of the politicians involved in them, do not undermine the legitimacy of the regime. Neither the Panama Scandals nor the Oil Sniffers Hoax or the Urba Affair threatened the survival of the Republic because, outside far right circles, they were seen as bugs, not as features. Globally, the system worked, and even if you disagreed with the party in power, you could hope for things to get done your way once your pet team was in the government.

The problem is that it does not work that way any longer. Our economies cannot function without solid growth, which is more and more becoming a thing of the past. As the government lacks the means to do anything but further the status quo, the policies of the left become indistinguishable from those of the right and their ideology focus away from societal issues to preserve the fake dichotomy so central in our political system.

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Of course, people are not fooled and see more and more their political class not as the promoters of such or such policies but as professionals fighting to advance their career. It becomes, by the way, more and more true, as the younger generation of politicians internalize the constraints of the system and focus on secondary, bobo, issues such as feminism or voting right for foreigners.

In such a situation, careerism, greed, and ultimately corruption become features of a political system more and more cut off from the day-to-day realities. Outright fraud remains rare, but privileges abound. I certainly enjoy some of them despite my low status and my position as an outsider, even though the main one – I can’t be fired – comes not from my being a politician but from being a civil servant.

The occasional scandal will then be considered by a large part of the population as the proof that the whole political class is corrupt and that only extremists are sincere. In 1780, that ultimately meant the Jacobins. In 1934, that meant the Communists or the various far right sects which would later found the Vichy regime. Now, it means caesarist parties such as the French National Front or Populist/leftist ones such as Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche.

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That makes corruption far more dangerous than in more prosperous times as it increases the already strong preference of our declining societies for authoritarianism. Fueled by an ever growing thirst for an effective political action, but similarly lacking in means, this authoritarianism won’t be less corrupt than its democratic rivals. In fact, it may be more, despite a few show-trials, because of a greater control of judicial institutions by the government – corruption-ridden China is a case in point. It will also be less efficient at mobilizing remaining resources since its legitimacy will be based not on its origin but on its supposed ability to solve the problems faced by the society, something it will be very unlikely to be able to do.

What authoritarianism will do, however, is destroy what will be left of the democratic tradition and replace it with a mythology of charismatic leadership which will pave the way for warlords later in the game. This can be disastrous. Democracy as an idea is probably going to survive or at least to be revived at some point, unless we lose writing, which is quite unlikely. Democratic tradition at the local level, however, with the network of associations and local institutions it depends, would be shattered by a period of brutal authoritarianism.

This is why it is vital for the future to eliminate corruption as much as possible, and to reduce, as much as possible again, the privileges of the political class. It’s not because they are bad – they are, but it is inevitable that the political class grabs some privileges and that some of its members go over to the dark side: that’s what human do. It’s because they reinforce a trend already strong in all declining societies which leads to runaway resource grabbing by self-appointed elites which would make the present political class almost competent and responsible in comparison.

We need to go robespierrian on corruption, lest a new Robespierre shows up.

Damien Perrotin

I’ve always disliked writing biographical blurbs because I never know how to begin... well, let’s say I was born and raised in Saint-Nazaire, a small industrial city in Southern Brittany and have graduated from Science Po’ Aix, a school specialising in law and political science – I must still have the diploma in some drawer. Like most French men of my generation, I spent some time in the military... Read more.

Tags: democracy, political corruption, political elites