PARIS – French voters just won’t tolerate corruption in politics anymore — that appears to be the message from the swift downfall of the country’s powerful security minister.
It’s a notable shift from the past, when influence peddling seemed endemic and politicians untouchable, even when they were accused of shocking scandals.
The change is the result of an aggressive new financial prosecutor, an unprecedented anti-corruption drive by President Francois Hollande, and growing public frustration with a political establishment seen as intent on enriching itself even as ordinary people suffer.
Hollande on Thursday inaugurated the French anti-corruption agency, a public organization focusing on business activity — the latest move in government efforts to fight corruption.
Five years ago, Hollande campaigned on the promise to make the French Republic “exemplary.” He probably didn’t think he would have so much clean up to do in his own camp.
Former Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux on Tuesday became the fifth minister to quit the Socialist government over financial wrongdoing allegations. Prosecutors opened an investigation into a report that he hired his two daughters for some two dozen temporary parliamentary jobs, starting when they were 15 and 16 years old.
The case comes as France’s electoral campaign is being affected by a string of corruption scandals ahead of the country’s two-round presidential election on April 23 and May 7.
The conservative candidate Francois Fillon is the target an investigation into allegations that he gave his wife and two children government-funded jobs which they never did.
Fillon suggested Thursday that Hollande would intervene in legal cases to try to discredit political rivals. Hollande vigorously denounced those allegations as false and insisted he has never intervened in any judicial procedure.
Fillon, once considered the presidential front-runner, has sunk in polls following the press’ first revelations about the jobs in January.
Since then, allegations have come out that Fillon was also given suits worth more than 48,000 euros ($52,000) over the past five years — including two suits worth 13,000 euros ($14,000) last month. Judges are also investigating whether Fillon and his wife committed fraud and forgery in a cover-up attempt.
His supporters insist the principle of presumption of innocence should protect their candidate.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and some members of her anti-EU, anti-immigrant National Front party are also targeted in several ongoing investigations.
Polls suggest that Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron are the two top contenders in the election. The top two vote-getters on April 23 will compete in a presidential runoff on May 7.
For the first time in the country’s history, the declarations of assets of all the presidential candidates were published this week on the High authority for the transparency of public life’s website.
Hollande’s term was tarnished from the start with scandals — the biggest one concerning former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac.
Cahuzac acknowledged owning illegal foreign bank accounts for two decades in March 2013, after denying and publicly lying for months. He was sentenced last year to three years in prison. He has appealed the decision.
Cahuzac’s case prompted the creation of the new position of a national financial prosecutor three years ago to focus on complex cases of serious economic and financial crime.
The government also passed a law in 2013 to force ministers and parliamentarians to declare their assets and avoid any conflict of interest. The same year, another bill tightened France’s legal arsenal to fight tax fraud and evasion.
In addition to Le Roux and Cahuzac, three lower-profile ministers were forced to quit Hollande’s government in the same circumstances, including junior minister for foreign trade Thomas Thevenoud who resigned in 2014 because he was named in an inquiry into tax fraud. He goes on trial next month.
“French people want exemplary attitude from their political leaders,” said French Socialist environment minister Segolene Royal, who also noted the consequences of corruption on France’s image abroad. “(We are) the country of human rights, a country of law. We need to watch our behavior.”
Hollande’s strong stance on fighting corruption and financial wrongdoing is a marked contrast with his predecessors’ attitudes.
Former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy is facing legal troubles. An investigation is underway over allegations that he received millions of euros in illegal financing from the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s regime for his winning 2007 presidential campaign.
Prosecutors also want him and 13 others sent to trial for another campaign financing case involving his failed 2012 presidential bid. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Jacques Chirac, the French president from 1995-2007, was given in 2011 a two-year suspended sentence for embezzling public funds while he was mayor of Paris.