The French socialist President François Hollande has only held office since mid-May last year, but his presidency is already going through zones of turbulence and Hollande is in the midst of a psychodrama.
Background – the Cahuzac scandal
There are multiple problems in France – economic, structural, politic and societal. An explosive crisis has recently aggravated the already critical situation. This takes its roots in the recent revelations about the former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac. He was the firm, forceful and feared minister in charge of cutting public deficits and the outspoken watchdog against tax fraud. Tax evasion was brought up high on the agenda because of President Hollande’s electoral pledge to impose a 75 % tax for those earning more than 1 million Euros. This has led to some well-publicized exodus by personalities such as Gérard Depardieu.
On December 4th last year the French investigative website Mediapart – run by a former le Monde editor in chief Edwy Plenel – launched an accusation that the minister Cahuzac was the holder of an illegal bank account in Switzerland. Mediapart is a unique voice that wants to challenge the prevailing reverential complicity, which the French media has with the French elite.
Jérôme Cahuzac repeatedly and energetically denied the accusation – also eye to eye with the President and judging on his honor in front of the National assembly on December 5th. After the police had authenticated a recorded tape where he supposedly talked about his Swiss accounts he had to resign from office on March 19th. He repeated that he was completely innocent and stated he would fight the allegations. All this until new irrefutable evidence made him confess – on his blog – on April 2nd to fraud and lying. He was guilty of tax evasion and had since many years a bank account in Switzerland, which he had transferred to Singapore in 2009 just before he was nominated to head the national assembly’s finance commission.
Political Scandals and National Culture
Political scandals have different character in every country and culture. This corresponds to what is taboo and especially reprehensible in the particular national context. In British politics scandals are predominantly sexual. A perpetual repetition of the 1963 Profumo affair. In France such adventures are not seen as scandalous. The piquant rumors even add to the prestige of the accused. (The one exception was in the case of the obsessed Dominique Strauss-Kahn.)
In the Nordic countries even the minutest misuse of public funds is seen as a breach of trust. In that region trust is the factor, which makes the decentralized society function coherently.
In France it is money that drives political scandals. And not small money – that is seen as the normal characteristic of a politician – but big money, large secret funds and kickbacks. Rumors about such misused not declared fortunes are very frequent but few get further than being examined by a judge. Nothing can be proven.
Financial Transparency in French Politics
On April 10th President Hollande announced radical measures to make disclosure of national and regional politicians’ wealth compulsory. The opposition had demanded strong measures in the wake of the Cahuzac treason – but this was certainly not what they wanted. The reluctant politicians like François Copé head of opposition party UMP said this was a measure, which gave everyone blame for the crimes of one minister. And – more important – that such disclosures risk fueling a complete rejection of the politicians by the electorate.
This comment reveals two things – first that many politicians have more wealth than they would dare to publicly admit (even after various clever manipulations to hide these assets). Secondly, the electorate notwithstanding the source of the wealth considers a rich politician reprehensible.
The Attitude to Money – Three Reasons for Distrust
Here we reach the heart of the matter – the French attitude to money.
In France when I lead seminars around cultural differences I often ask what is the worst you can do, something that definitively puts you beyond the pale. Not just something showing lack of manners but an act simply not done.
The reply is consistently that the worst you can do is asking someone how much money he or she earns.
Why is everything related to money such a strong taboo in France?
I. The Catholic mental heritage.
Max Weber has analyzed the difference between Protestants and Catholics as regards work and the creation of wealth in his 1905 book « The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism ». Money is in Catholic faith seen as something sinful.
All exposure of riches is vulgar. Money should be inherited. Not created and earned. Rich upstarts show bad manners, which is one of the worst things imaginable.
Another mental disposition has catholic roots. However fallen from grace a sinning politician might be, there is always the possibility of forgiveness. This is a mental trace of the admission of sins in the confessional followed by absolution from the confessor. Political scandals might be very dramatic but may quite quickly be forgotten and the politician anew admitted into positions of confidence and power. President Mitterrand said that a politician could only be counted out once he is dead. This is extremely different from the Nordic countries where breach of confidence can never be forgiven.
Theses Catholics views are not based upon any sophisticated theological analysis but rather upon popular beliefs or rather reflexes.
II. Peasants’ Secrets
The second root of the distrust of money comes from the peasant society’s reactions towards exhibited wealth. The population actually working in agriculture in France is less than 3 percent. But the agricultural heritage is mentally strong. The peasant is conservative, suspicious and distrusts others. He belongs to the soil. He keeps his money hidden under the mattress and his houses are austere on the outside where nothings show off his accumulated wealth. The tax collector might come, money hungry relatives, or just intruders.
III. Revolutionary Mentality
There is also a revolutionary heritage not only from the French revolution in 1789 but also historically manifested in many confrontations in the divided French society. This means that there is always a big part of the French electorate, which loathes the capitalist system. Capitalisms generate capitalists and these are getting rich on the back of the workers.
The French Elite
To understand why some politicians have such a love for money and are prepared to use immoral and secret methods to accumulate it one has to look at the French elite and its privileges.
An elite rules the French society. This elite recruits its members from the dominant influential families and from the very competitive system of higher education. This creates an isolated cast of mandarins. It is bonded together by a combination of relations through marriages and family connections and camaraderie from the elite schools. These schools create an analytic, logic and mathematical mind, a great general culture and a possibility to absorb large amounts of data and structure brilliant conclusions. The graduates are listed in order of merit. This ranking will follow them through their entire lives and open doors in relation to how high up the ladder you climbed in your youth.
The French elite is convinced that they are above the law and that they deserve their privileges.
The French population has a very ambiguous view of this elite and of authority as such. On one hand the elite is admired, orders obeyed, authority accepted. This resembles a feudal system. Based upon loyalty from the base towards the ruler who protects and distributes favors and gifts – often in an arbitrary manner. What is given and received is a secret, personal favor.
But this loyalty has a paradoxical relationship to the French revolutionary dislike of the hierarchy. Devotion of royalty and regicide. It is manifested in fear, submission and a hatred of the strong leader but contempt and upheaval against the weak. The population wants a dominating leader, which they can oppose.
What is Truth?
Jérôme Cahuzac was lying for a very long time. Even in front of the President and his colleagues. And Cahuzac now says he should not rest the only scapegoat.
In some societies truth and lies are digital. Black or white. Right or wrong. Mutually exclusive. Lies are shameful beyond limits. In other cultures like the French the grey tones are useful and have a value in themselves. The secrets are used to protect the liar but also have a delicious flavor. A dark and sinful pleasure to be enjoyed in what is seen as a too rational, clean-shaven and thus naïve society.
The shared secrets create invisible but very strong bonds between people.
All these factors described above are now converging in the crisis in France.
If the politicians do not reveal their wealth they will be suspected if on the other hand they make it public they will be attacked. Le Monde is promising further revelations in a “Offshore Leaks” campaign with lists of French prominent personalities and politicians from all parties who also had their accounts in the Swiss bank that hid Cahuzac’s money. Was it only stuffed away private money or also funds for the socialist party’s campaigns? Did the French President and some of his key ministers know about the truth before it was relieved publicly? How come the opposition politicians were so supportive of Cahuzac? If one man falls will not all fall?
More and more French commentators at this moment put forward the thesis – with much cruelty – that François Hollande, as a person has not the strength of character sufficient to assume the supreme leadership of France.
It reminds us of the title of Stefan Zweig’s biography of the Queen Marie Antoinette – Portrait of an average character. Someone not dimensioned to be on centre stage during a historical event of such magnitude as the French Revolution.
Financial Times has already compared President Hollande to the unfortunate Louis XVI. Are we witnessing a normal political crisis soon to be replaced by new events or seeing the beginning of a more profound change of scenery?