How many jobs should an MP have?

In France MPs can work in other political positions, but as a new bill seeks to end this, many defend the tradition. Oliver Rowland reports

18 September 2013

A BILL stopping politicians from accumulating important local and national jobs – one of President Hollande’s election promises – is set to cause upheaval in the political scene.

In France, députés and sénateurs (equivalent to British MPs or lords) may also hold important local council positions – a situation known as le cumul des mandats (accumulation of elected posts).

It is something of a French speciality but critics question if it is really possible to be, for example, both an MP and the mayor of a large city, and do both jobs properly.

A law in 2000 banned accumulation of national office and more than one ‘significant’ local one, including being a regional or departmental councillor or a councillor for a town with a population of 3,500 or more. The new bill, debated from June 3, goes further: MPs and senators (and also MEPs) may not also hold a local ‘executive’ role (mayor or deputy mayor, president or vice-president of a departmental or regional council or president of an intercommunal body). They will have to choose one or the other.

The government says this is needed due to recent devolvement of new powers to councillors and a ‘reinforced’ role of parliament due to constitutional reforms. It adds that if “new personalities” access local jobs it will “renew public life”.

However, it states the new rules will not be enforced until 2017. Then, if there is a local election, candidates for top local jobs will step down from national office if elected. The government took advice from the Conseil d’État and wants to avoid too many MPs leaving office suddenly.

Fifty eight per cent of senators and 59% of MPs are concerned by the law.

One minority centre-right group, le Parti libéral démocrate, put out a statement complaining that, while polls showed three-quarters of French people support the law, “it has been put off with absolute indifference”. Socialist Party first secretary Harlem Désir had called for it to operate from municipal elections in 2014.

The bill proposes to avoid MP by-elections by allowing them to be replaced by their suppléant (a stand-in elected at the same time, designated to replace them in the case of death or nomination as minister).

One third of MPs have other “demanding” jobs

An expert on le cumul, Laurent Bach of the Stockholm School of Economics and author of Faut-il abolir le cumul des mandats?, says a third of MPs have “especially demanding” local jobs, such as mayor of a large or medium-sized town or president of a region or department.

He said it is the fact that MPs often have responsibilities for large local populations (and often in executive roles), rather than accumulation per se, that makes France stand out in Europe. The 2000 law means someone can be, for example, Mayor of Paris and an MP, plus further jobs not deemed ‘significant’ (including being mayor of a commune of less than 3,500 inhabitants). Député-maire (MP-mayor) is the most common combination for these politicians who are referred to as cumulards. Dr Bach said this is partly because mayors have more power than, for example, departmental councillors (unless they are council president).

“The problem is not so great for senators. Some are big guys, the mayor of Lyon is a senator, but, on average, their local mandate is much smaller in population size.”

One reason for the French situation is personality politics, Dr Bach told Connexion. “The town election is all about the person at the head of the list and it’s the same population voting for the MP election. Parties often ask the most charismatic person to win both for them.”

Those favouring le cumul, such as Alpes-Maritimes MP Jean Leonetti (UMP), who is mayor of Antibes (76,000 population), say local and national roles are complementary.

“The national sphere involves reflection and exchanges that I find enriching intellectually and the town is enriching as you see the results,” he said. “When I am in Paris, I need local support and, when I am in Antibes, I need the national perspective.”

While Mr Leonetti, who has been much involved in certain national issues, might be an exception, Dr Bach said this is a common argument and he remains unconvinced.

Local-national connection arguments no longer relevant

“It’s not backed by the data. They say being a mayor improves your grass-roots connection, but MPs who are not mayors are just as good at being present on the ground because they have the same incentive; and mayors might have needed national contacts in the days when local communities couldn’t get anything without approval from central government but, since the 1980s, it’s not true because most of the money allotted to them is awarded by strict formulas.”

He added: “The truth is you can get away with doing nothing much in national parliament. It’s à la carte as to how much or little you do. The main way people get away with le cumul is to do their job well at the local level because if you are a mayor you are really held responsible. As an MP you can follow what the party tells you to do.”

Dr Bach said, on average, MPs with demanding local jobs attend half as many debates as others. They also prioritise debates with an impact on local government and have a bias towards measures to help councils. “However, MPs always show up on Wednesdays, which is the day that debates are televised.”

People have a ‘schizophrenic’ view of le cumul, he said. “If you ask, ‘are you against it?’ 90% say ‘yes’. However, they keep electing people with several mandates. Local electors don’t necessarily have the incentive to make sure the person they vote for is best for the whole country. They think about what the person will do for them.”

Mr Désir probably favours ending it because this is very popular among grass-roots party members across the political spectrum, who feel shut out from top jobs. “It’s also a cheap way of saying they care about limiting politicians’ power and about political ethics, which tend to be of greater concern to left-wing voters,” added Dr Bach.

Many perks

The law would “make a big difference”. “In the long run, when it starts is irrelevant, though as the Left is likely to lose the next local elections because of the state of the country, from a cynical point of view, for MPs to shed [local] mandates now might not be in the Left’s favour. The Right is against it, but it’s in their advantage for it to be put in place quickly.”

Most MPs will probably keep their national mandates “that come with many perks”, said Dr Bach. Also, if you shed the MP job it is harder to get it back again.

“You can shed a mayoral mandate and remain a municipal councillor; then, if you lose as an MP later, you can come back to your mairie and say ‘I’m the big guy, I want the mayor to quit’. It’s unlikely there will be many quitting nationally, but there will be many local positions up for grabs.”

Now, he said, we may well see bargaining for mayors of smaller communes to be made exempt, as with the 2000 law.

A spokeswoman for the Association des Maires de France, representing around 36,000 mayors, said its members tend to support such an aim. “Our president is against the law, thinking you can stand up for your patch better when you are a national politician, and the danger of a national politician who has never had local experience is he doesn’t know the realities people face.

“Many other mayors think being mayor of, say, Paris or Lyon is a full-time job, but in the 32,000 communes with less than 2,000 inhabitants, often the mairie is open two afternoons a week and having a mayor who is an MP or senator poses no problem,” she said.

Lawyers and surgeons

AS PART of efforts to clean up the image of politics, President Hollande has promised to ban MPs from holding certain professional jobs considered to potentially cause conflicts of interest.

The move has highlighted the existence of another kind of “cumul” – the fact that parliamentarians can do jobs like being lawyers or doctors while also doing their political job.

Député-maire (MP-mayor) Jean Leonetti told Connexion he gave up being a surgeon in order to concentrate on his political roles. Others, however, do not, such as the current president of the UMP Party, Jean-François Copé who stated in L’ Express, in 2007-2010 that he took a part-time job as a business lawyer on €20,000 a month, while also being an MP and mayor. Le Monde quotes sources close to him as saying he still practices independently. Business law, and probably law in general, is likely to be among roles Hollande will seek to ban, said L’Express, which stated 35 MPs are avocats.

Being a civil servant and an MP is possible (unlike in the UK), indeed common, with 185 MPs involved, and another popular role is medicine (24).

Hollande said medicine per se should not be banned but that working for a commercial laboratory was likely to be inappropriate.

Disgraced former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac is said to have been earning €130,000 (gross) a year as a plastic surgeon and consultant to laboratories while also being an MP in 2010-2012.

Photo:flickr/Pierre-Alain-Dorange

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