France launches push to expose wealthy lawmakers' assets
PARIS (Reuters) - France unveiled draft legislation on Wednesday aimed at making hundreds of parliamentarians and other elected officials disclose their wealth and business activities to a new watchdog.
A response to a scandal over a former minister's secret bank account, the bill would create one of the most transparent systems in the West, exposing lawmakers' assets and barring them from non-governmental work that means a conflict of interest.
President Francois Hollande is striving to reassert his authority after the furor over ex-budget minister Jerome Cahuzac's Swiss account and wants to force all 577 deputies and 348 senators, and other senior public officials, to declare their assets and activities upon taking and leaving office.
He faces stiff opposition, including from within his Socialist Party, from lawmakers loath to be exposed to scrutiny.
"The main bone of contention is whether it should be made public or not. Most members of parliament oppose that as they are worried it will lead to resentment against politicians," said Jacques Reland of the Global Policy Institute.
"In other countries people think it's normal, a good sign even, if politicians are rich, but in France there's this guilty rapport with money where people are envious and less admiring of the rich than people in the U.S. or Britain," he said.
The law would force elected officials, ministerial staff, mayors and other officials to declare their assets, income and any potential conflicts of interest to an independent authority.
The state council, the government's legal watchdog, would decide how much information to make public.
Failure to comply would risk a three-year prison term and a 45,000 euro ($58,600) fine. A minister caught lying about assets could face a five-year jail sentence and a 75,000 euro fine.
Hollande already had a panel working on ways to improve "morality" in public life but sped up his plans after Cahuzac admitted this month that he had lied about a Swiss bank account.
The bill is now due to go before parliament in June.
"The aim is to restore public confidence in politicians and place our country among the most advanced democracies in terms of preventing conflict of interest in public life," government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told reporters.
The law would rank France among leaders in transparency including the United States, Italy, Portugal and Hungary.
Spain also publishes lawmakers' assets and Britain obliges MPs to declare financial interests, though they are not made public. Germany publishes the income and interests of all elected officials but not their overall wealth.
However, France has a long tradition of lawmakers working as business consultants or lawyers alongside parliamentary jobs.
Cahuzac, a lawmaker before he was made budget minister last May, had worked in the past as a medical industry consultant following a post at the Health Ministry early in his career.
A list of the assets of Hollande's ministers made public last week revealed eight millionaires.
($1 = 0.7683 euros)