Rajika Jayatilake hails President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to rid France of dirty politics

President Emmanuel Macron is on a mission to bring ethics and integrity into France’s corruption riddled political system, and he could transform his country into a role model for the world. American business magnate and former politician Ross Perot once said: “War has rules, mudwrestling has rules – politics has no rules.”

The image of politicians globally is that they don’t have standards or principles. Yet, there are also the likes of Republican congressman for Illinois John Shimkus who believes that “when you go to the polls, ethics and morality should be part of the evaluation.”

With the global image of politicians at an all-time low, France is one country aiming to set tough rules on ethics for its lawmakers.

Macron became the youngest president in French history at the age of 39 with a landslide win in this year’s presidential election. His young party Republic on the Move – comprising mostly outsiders like teachers and farmers – was chosen overwhelmingly by French voters over the two mainstream parties that are viewed by the public as being disgracefully corrupt.

Having never held elected office before, Macron is neither left nor right, and is borrowing economic policies from the right and social reforms from the left.

Among his priorities is bringing transparency and ethics into politics – a campaign promise on which he intends to deliver.

He will terminate the special court that consists mainly of lawmakers, which judges sitting government members. Cases of fraud and corruption brought against ruling politicians will be tried by regular judges to prevent politicians using the judicial system to hit out at rivals.

He wants to reduce the number of parliamentary seats (currently 925) by a third, and have both houses of parliament meet in Versailles annually for accountability. Macron will create a public bank to finance political parties and require that politicians produce expense reports. Moreover, any politician convicted of corruption or fraud will be barred from holding office for 10 years.

In a country where one-sixth of lawmakers have family members on the payroll, Macron intends to rule that they stop doing so. He plans to publicise the names of people who gift more than 2,500 euros to politicians to prevent corrupt practices once in office and have a three-term limit for politicians (there’s currently no term limit).

But in attempting this staggering cleanup, he stumbled on ethical issues in his own setup. Four of his cabinet members from another political party – the Mouvement démocrate (MoDem) – were forced to resign when news broke that they were under investigation for unethical behaviour. Among the four was the leader of MoDem, the former justice minister François Bayrou.

Bayrou had every intention of staying on as justice minister while toeing the line with Macron’s promise to bring in ethical politics. He once commented that Macron’s new laws will eliminate the belief that there is one law for regular people and another for politicians. He said: “Morality is a personal question. Institutions are not set up to make men virtuous but knowing that not all are, they’re set up to avoid human weaknesses contaminating the public body.”

However, as Germany’s media development academy DW Akademie observes, MoDem was beset with allegations of misusing European Union (EU) funds to finance official activities that could violate a rule that the two should be left separate.

In earlier French governments, this type of allegation would have been cast aside with disdain. For instance, three months before the presidential election, former Conservative presidential candidate François Fillon was accused of granting his wife Penelope over a million US Dollars for unknown reasons.

But despite the relative triviality of the allegation, Macron was forced to let the four cabinet ministers go as he had to walk his talk. The public expects him to clean up his own base first.

Apart from this, the president knows that the two main parties are waiting for him to trip up to reap the political fallout. So he had to let go of experienced politicians and also his coalition partner to maintain his own credibility. According to a survey by European custom market research company Harris Interactive, over 50 percent of French voters were glad that Bayrou resigned.

So Macron needs to fill the vacuum from within his own ranks, which will be difficult, and also lower the bar of capability as most of his party members are political greenhorns. Yet, it appears that the president now has a free hand to pursue his agenda instead of having a more experienced coalition partner pulling at the reins.

Macron’s unswerving focus on ethical politics derives from his association with one of France’s famous philosophers the late Paul Ricœur, having helped him write books. Ricœur defined an ‘ethics of responsibility’ drawing on contemporary thinking and Christian theology.

Macron is thus challenging an established order by introducing a high level of integrity into political activity. France could become a role model for contemporary global politicians – for as the US Supreme Court’s Associate Justice the late Potter Stewart once said: “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”