Jean Garrigues is President of the Committee on Parliamentary and Political History. His publications include The Scandals of the Republic. From Panama to Cahuzac (Nouveau monde, 2013). His latest book is Jours Heureux. When the French dreamed together (Payot, 2023).
LE FIGARO. - Ten years after his resignation from Jean-Marc Ayrault's government following revelations about his bank account in Switzerland, Jérôme Cahuzac has begun his return to politics. Can a politician who has been embroiled in a financial scandal return to public life? Have there been any precedents?
Jean GARRIGUES. - There have been precedents, including under the Fifth Republic. One can think of Alain Carignon, mayor of Grenoble who was convicted in 1996 of corruption and misuse of company assets by using his influence with companies that financed municipal newspapers that were de facto his campaign newspapers. He returned to politics in 2002 after 5 years of ineligibility. Similarly, the mayor of Levallois-Perret, Patrick Balkany, became mayor again in 2001 after being convicted for the first time in 1996.
These two examples show that returns are possible, but they are less significant than Cahuzac's return. The Cahuzac affair was a political explosion and a media earthquake, one of the biggest scandals of recent years, along with the Strauss-Kahn affair and the Fillon affair: a minister in charge of repressing tax fraud who was himself engaged in this crime. Above all, the public lie was very spectacular, with the press in interviews, and in front of the entire National Assembly – we have to go back to the Panama scandal in 1892 to see incriminated ministers and deputies denying in the Chamber their responsibility in this corruption affair. The Cahuzac scandal has deepened the mistrust between citizens and their elected representatives, and the affair has also done a lot of damage to François Hollande, who was initially accused of covering it up.
Today, the degree of intransigence with regard to the exemplarity of elected officials is much higher. The return of Cahuzac, irremediably associated with these excesses, seems very unlikely: his word will not be heard.
Its exceptional dimension means that Cahuzac's return is not part of the usual commentary on this type of event. Even Balkany's case is of far less importance, for he belongs more to local political life, and his return was only temporary, ending in imprisonment. Similarly, Carignon never returned to the forefront of public life. We could also mention the case of Alain Juppé, convicted of illegal financing of public life and returned after an exile in Canada, but he was only a simple cog in a system of secret financing, or that of Henri Emmanuelli, treasurer of the Socialist Party incriminated in the Urba affair, was re-elected MP in the Landes in 2000. But all these cases do not have the same symbolic value as the one that affected Jérôme Cahuzac. And it should be remembered that the most numerous cases are the definitive withdrawals of the incriminated politicians after the scandals.
Cahuzac argued that he had "served his sentence in full". If he is out of the way from the point of view of justice, is remission possible in the political and media world?
The examples cited were still possible fifteen years ago, but they are no longer possible today, partly because of the exceptional nature of this case, but also because of the evolution of the representations and perceptions of the French, who for a long time accepted these politico-financial excesses in a more or less resigned manner. Today, the degree of intransigence with regard to the exemplarity of elected officials is much higher. The return of Cahuzac, irremediably associated with these excesses, seems very unlikely: his word will not be heard.
While he acknowledged the importance of his fault "from a criminal point of view", he said Nupes had done "more harm to the left" politically. To what extent have the scandals that have affected the Republic had electoral consequences?
It is impossible to accurately assess the electoral consequences of scandals – they are part of the psychology of crowds, the collective psychology of the French. However, it is undeniable that they have always been important. These scandals, which affected all parties in the 1990s – the Urba affair for the financing of the PS, the Mery affair, named after the secret financier of the RPR involved in the Paris public housing affair – fed the arguments of the opposition at the time, i.e. the far right, and were no doubt not unrelated to Jean-Marie Le Pen's arrival in the second round in 2002. If we go back further in history, just after the Panama scandal that involved 150 corrupt deputies and senators, the 1893 elections were a slaughter for incumbents. These scandals feed mistrust and potentially lead to a rise in abstention and protest groups.
In the 1990s, a reaction from the judiciary and the investigative media, and therefore from public opinion, provoked an increased demand for transparency on the part of politicians, and the Cahuzac affair was only an accelerator of this trend in 2013.
It is undeniable that Nupes, in the way it was presented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2022, can be questioned in its results: the strategy of conflictuality has reached its limits, as shown by the forecasts for the European elections, which are unfavourable to LFI. However, Cahuzac's argument does not hold water, because he speaks of a reality of a different order that is not quantifiable.
Jérôme Cahuzac accused François Hollande of lying to the French about the unemployment curve. Is it rather the morality of politicians or their political impotence that provokes the French people's distrust of them?
Political discourse maintains half-truths, but not necessarily telling the whole truth and presenting it in a sense to try to restore trust is part of the politician's mission. In his speech, François Hollande is only anticipating a reality, that of the absorption of unemployment and the resumption of a form of growth. The most famous historical example of what is wrongly called a "political lie" is General De Gaulle's "I have understood you" in front of the crowd in Algiers on June 4, 1958. This word is interpreted as a promise to maintain French Algeria, but it illustrates the ambiguity of political discourse, which is subject to divergent interpretations. By putting himself on the same level as François Hollande, Jérôme Cahuzac is in fact trivializing his own turpitude: I lied to the French people about my accounts; He lied to them about unemployment. He compares the incomparable: an individual crime and a speech that has nothing to do with morality.
Politicians' duty to set an example seems obvious today. Has it always been this way?
The discourse has always denounced the excesses of public men, but in reality, politico-financial affairs have splashed all the Republics. There was a kind of shift in the 1990s, due to the mobilisation of judges – the 'petit juges' and the 'clean hand operations', the name of what had happened in Italy 'mani pulite'. A reaction from the judiciary and the investigative media, and therefore from public opinion, provoked an increased demand for transparency on the part of politicians, and the Cahuzac affair was only an accelerator of this trend in 2013. The demand for transparency has also been sparked by the example of the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon countries, which are intransigent on political and financial excesses and are true models in this area – a Swedish minister number two in the government resigned in 1995 following the purchase of chocolate bars with her business credit card ("the Toblerone affair").
It was only very difficult for the judiciary to investigate in the political world, and there was a kind of omerta that politicians opposed to investigations, still present in the Urba affair with a kind of wall of silence built by the socialists, or when the scandals affecting the RPR were revealed.
This movement followed 150 years of opacity and cover-ups of affairs: the Panama scandal in 1892 resulted in a single conviction – Minister Charles Baïhaut, while 150 deputies and ministers were implicated; the Stavisky affair in 1934 led to a judicial no-man's land... It was very difficult for the judiciary to investigate in the political world, and there was a kind of omerta that politicians opposed to investigations, still present in the Urba affair with a kind of wall of silence built by the Socialists, or during the revelation of the scandals affecting the RPR, which Jacques Chirac described as "absurd" in 2000.
Are we now in the opposite excess?
We must remain vigilant against excessive transparency, which can lead to a certain paralysis. As far as local elected officials are concerned, many mayors give up running for re-election because of the administrative burdens and the legal risks incurred in relation to acts for which they can be accused. Similarly, there have been many legal actions taken against ministers during the Covid crisis. The resignation of François de Rugy in the wake of the lobster affair shows the limits of intransigence, as the political office always implies a form of decorum and prestige, with exceptional meals and forms of luxury. However, intransigence towards the duty to set an example is demanded by the majority of French people, and it constitutes a democratic necessity that makes it possible to avoid abuses. We are not yet in a fully sanitized democracy; Intransigence must prevail over fear of excesses.