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Welcome to our investigative reporting department.  This month's lead feature, about a dark side of the City of Lights, won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for international reporting.   

Elsewhere in this section, the double award-winning Baby Doe: The Miracle and the Shame reveals the heartbreaking story of a law that created a quarter-million severely handicapped kids, then left them destitute.

If you like true crime, check out Portrait of a Killing, a nonfiction novel that the London Observer called "as good a read as any of the best-selling fiction in the new American legal genre", and The Ramsey File, first published in Salon.  

$45 Million in Pocket Change for Pols

In France, it is legal for politicians to hold more than one electoral post at the national, regional, county or municipal level concurrently.  Politicians who do so are called “accumulators”. In 1992, a Socialist government sought to discourage the practice by capping their salaries.  But the law "forgot" to define what would happen to the excess revenues the pols couldn't collect.  Our investigation shows that over the following decade, $45 million was very quietly transferred from the state to the pockets of  pols on the Left and Right alike.  Published on the front page of Le Figaro on Jan. 8, 2002, the story appears here in English for the first time.

By Mark Hunter, Nour Richard-Guerroudj, Salim Jaouani, Fabien Laborde, Lucie Monier-Reyes and Aurore Gorius

Tougher than tough is the life of the accumulator of elected jobx, especially since 1992.  That year a new law limited the total indemnities our politicians could claim to $6714 monthly (later raised to $7285), the equivalent of one and a half times the salary of a Senator or Deputy of the Parliament.  Thus our representatives wished to promote the selflessness of elected officials, by avoiding the possibility that they could pocket more revenue at the rhythm of new elections.

But a question as simple as it is fundamental was never resolved with the same attention to clarity: What happens to the excess salaries of an accumulator?

The simplest solution would evidently be to leave the money in the public coffers, to answer other needs.  Too simple, apparently.

Why ?  Because our representatives found something better, at least from their point of view.  Without ever taking the risk of an explicit public debate on the technical aspects of their so-called reform, they took care that the money a accumulator can no longer claim would nevertheless serve to boost the pay of his political pals.  The system they created is called the écrêtement (ey-cret-mo, meaning transfer.  For the legislative history of the system, click here. ).

It can be very easily described : The excess salaries of an accumulator are transferred to another politician.  Of his choice.  Without any objective criteria, except that the receiver must belong to one of the same assemblies… and the same political party.

The least that can be said is that the écrêtement is hardly known outside the political sphere.  Some would consider it a system of political finance, supported by taxpayers in the most complete ignorance, despite a pretense of transparency.  And it costs the taxpayers enough to merit closer attention. In 2000, the Senate counted 141 members, out of a total of 321 (including 250 accumulators), who paid out the excess of their salaries to another official.   Assuming that the number of accumulating Senators was fairly constant between 1992 and 2000, the total cost of their payouts for the taxpayers during that time was just over $19 million.

And it should be noted that our calculations, based on the salary scales for electoral posts published by the Ministry of the Interior, are highly conservative.  They do not take into account the salaries earned by Senators who sit on the boards of quasi-public “mixed economy” companies, or inter-urban structures that unite several municipalities, where salaries can reach over $14,000 annually.  Moreover, the figures above do not include the 577 Deputies of the National Assembly, of whom 90% were accumulators in 2000.  It is thus safe to estimate that in total, since 1992 some $45 million were redistributed through the écrêtement

Beyond the sums at stake, it is the opacity of the system that raises questions.  Until 1999, there was no legal obligation to name the officials who received the excess of their colleagues’ salaries.  While payers and receivers, and the sums in question, are now required to be evoked in public debate, we found assemblies that do not respect the law.

It is therefore in the daily practice of our democratic assemblies that one must seek out the operating methods of the system.  Note again that the accumulator is perfectly free to decide the destiny of the money he or she earns through different functions.

For example, in 2001 the Socialist Senator Jean-Yves Mano, who is also an adjunct Mayor of the city of Paris, chose to divide $715 each month among six adjuncts to the Mayors of Paris’s wards.  Likewise, each month [former Prime Minister and Deputy] Edouard Balladur splits $450 between three colleagues in the municipal council of Paris, while his colleague in the RPR party, Pierre Lellouche, transfers the same sum to a single municipal councilwoman.  In 1997 the Deputy and Mayor of Paris Jean Tiberi, by himself, transferred no less that $3800 per month to his colleagues on the City Council.

Let’s sum up so far : You voted for a candidate who already had the good fortune to win another electoral post, which he keeps.  (A privilege, let us recall, that no other democracy allows to the same extent as France.)  Wrapped in this democratic legitimacy, he transfers a share of his salaries to another official who sits in one of the same assemblies.  Possibly without knowing or desiring it, you have mandated your representative to boost the pay of another. 

It’s a weird practice.  Weird, especially coming from the State,” admits Catherine Gegout, adjunct mayor of the 20th Ward of Paris and member of the Communist group of the City Council.

The trickiest part of it is that often enough, the accumulator declines to personally choose who will get the money in the end : His or her party decides instead.  You have therefore mandated a political party to decide whom, in its ranks, should enjoy some extra pocket money every month at your expense.

Patrick Bloche, a Socialist Deputy and president of his party’s group at the City Council of Paris, acknowledges that the transfer of salaries follows a collegial decision among the Socialists.  He claims that “the sums transferred are divided equally to the penny among all the Socialist and Radical Left adjunct ward mayors.  About forty of them are concerned in all.  The money transferred corresponds to about $140 per person per month, or a total of $5700 monthly.  Which is absurdly low.”

Our research shows that in most cases the transfer comes to about $170 per month, so far as the Parisian Left is concerned.  But there are some exceptions.  In 2000, Patrick Bloche himself transferred $306 each month to one of his colleagues, and $162 to another. 

That year the transfers voted by the City Council of Paris totalled nearly $186,000 dollars.  In 2001, in the midst of a reform of the accumulation of electoral posts – an official can now hold only two elected posts, instead of three – the total of transfers was practically the same.  It is true that the new limit on holding concurrent electoral posts will be instituted gradually, in step with coming elections.  

Patrick Bloche also points out that these transfers are made only following “debate in the Council, deliberations and a vote.  Everything is done transparently.” Except that the debates on transfers within parties are not open to the public.

It is nonetheless true that the City Council of Paris, which puts online the totality of its debates concerning the écrêtement, including the sums transferred and the names of the beneficiaries, appears exemplary in this domain.  In fact, it appears unique.

Other cities don’t go that far, and the law doesn’t require them to.  At Lille, one of the best models after Paris, key documents do not show up on the city’s website, but they are furnished to those who ask for them.  Thus we learned that the Socialist Deputy Yves Durand, one of those who supported the reform of 1992, transfers $1461 every month to two colleages.  Two other adjunct mayors transfer $1307 monthly to a delegated municipal counsellor, and $862 to another.  Note that 22 other delegated municipal counsellors are paid only a monthly indemnity of $793.  That’s one way of saying that the écrêtement overturns the “final gross pay for public service”,  the legal scale for the payment of elected officials.

Some cities are far more discreet.  In Marseille, the names of officials who transfer revenues and the names of those who receive them appear in the debates of the City Council, exactly as the law requires – but not the amounts transferred.   When we asked the public relations office of Marseille to provide those figures, we were politely told to go away.  The same thing happened in Rouen.  As for Montpellier, the secretary of Mayor Georges Frèche informed us that he did not wish to “follow up” on our questions.

Philippe Séguin, Deputy of the Vosges and newly-elected Paris city councilman, likewise contacted, likewise declined to reply.  According to the records of the Council of Paris, on June 9 and 10, 2001, he transferred $475 per month to Roxane Decorte, an RPR councilwoman. The Deputy and Mayor of Amiens, Gilles de Robien, willingly admits that he transfers part of his indemnities, but declined to tell us who gets it.  When we asked him why the country needs such a system, he replied, “To avoid abuses, and… facilitate transparency.”  Right.

One may also note that the public debates on the écrêtement are of limited interest, because the various assemblies concerned do nothing more than consecrate the decisions taken elsewhere by elected officials or their parties.  The Paris councilwoman Charlotte Nenner found out about that the hard way.  When the City Council deliberated on its transfers in July 2001, she dared to protest, in the name of the Green Party, that it was “abnormal” that “a personal indemnity should be transferred to other [officials] according to vague and changing criteria.”  Christian Sautter, former Minister of the Economy and Finances and now adjunct for Finances to the Mayor of Paris, replied curtly to her that “this debate is limited to applying the law.”

In effect, if the écrêtement arouses so little protest among the political class, it’s because many elected officials believe that these transfers serve to correct an injustice.  It is true that the indemnities of municipal officials, even in Paris, do not really incite citizens to consecrate themselves fully to public affairs.  An RPR councilwoman of Paris whose only revenues are the $1057 (after taxes) she earns monthly at the City Council, plus another $1057 as first adjunct Mayor of a ward, sighs while saying : “They could pay adjunct mayors better.” 

That is why Patrick Bloche declares:  “In the absence of a genuine legal status for elected officials, the écrêtement allows us to make adjustments.  It’s a manner of re-establishing a certain balance, but it’s only a very modest compensation.” Gilles de Robien agrees: “It’s a good system, but it could be optimized.  A modulation according to the level of responsibility would seem more equitable to me.”

False, replies Charlotte Nenner. “The system is a source of inqualities among elected officials, because at the same level of function and responsibilities, some of them dispose of supplementary revenues, thanks to the écrêtement.”

Everyone agrees that a more honest solution would be to provide elected officials, whatever their level, with sufficient remuneration to devote themselves fully to their mandates.  But everyone also recognizes that such a reform is difficult to defend before a public opinion that remains deeply disenchanted with the political class.  One can only wonder why.

Chronicle of a Stillborn Law

To understand the écrêtement, we must return to the deleterious context of the begining of the 1990s.  The Socialists in power, like the ensemble of the political class, were discredited by repeated scandals in which the occult financing of France’s parties was exposed.  An amnesty law designed to put an end to the pursuits conducted by investigating magistrates succeeded only in enraging them and disgusting the public even more.  The “Contaminated Blood Affair” revealed to the French that even their health had become no more than a financial speculation.  The county and regional elections of March 1992 were coming soon, and already the Left felt the tremors of its catastrophic showing in the legislative elections of 1993 . 

It was now, on December 9, 1991, that the government of Edith Cresson pulled out of its hat two proposed laws “relative to the conditions in which local electoral mandates are exercise,” while declaring “urgency”, an accelerated legislative procedure.  Both laws aimed to “democratize” local officialdom, and “to create a greater transparency in the definition of the system of indemnisation” of elected officials, according to the government’s introductory text. 

Among the means to these ends figured a cap on the indemnities of politicians, to end “once and for all the suspicions weighing on the revenues of Parlementarians,” said the National Assembly’s Reporter for these laws, the Socialist Didier Mathus.  The public would know, now and always, how well its representatives are remunerated.

No one, perhaps, foresaw that these laws would have for a secondary effect the reinforcement of the feudal character of French democracy, by giving accumulators the possibility to subsidize their aides at the expense of taxpayers.

Two laws were indeed passed on February 3 and 25, 1992.  They constitute the legal basis of the écrêtement... without ever using the term. They simply state that an elected official “cannot add remunerations and indemnities … to his Parliamentary indemnity, except within the limit of one and a half times the amount of the latter.”   But there is not one word on the means by which this cap will be applied.

In reply to the questions of several elected officials, a directive from the Ministry of the Interior evoked for the first time the term écrêtement, and specified: “If a mayor has the right to only a part of his indemnity… it is recognized that he has the opportunity to transfer [the excess] to the profit of his adjuncts.”

Note that according to this document, the transfer is only an option, which the elected official may still choose not to exercise.  And that the fundamental flaw of the accumulation of mandates – the difficulty of assuming the functions of a Parliamentarian and of a local official simultaneously – is implicitly recognized.  In fact, what’s involved is paying an official’s adjuncts to accomplish the work he or she can’t do. 

Where does transparency come into this scene ?  The Minister of the Interior could only “wish” that public debate with the assemblies concerned by these transfers “be nominative.”  But a wish is not a legal obligation.

It was necessary to await the reform of the accumulation of mandates to close certain glaring holes in the system.  A law now obliges municipal, county or regional councils, as well as public institutions for inter-municipal cooperation, to precede every transfer by nominative debates.  But there is no obligation to report the sums involved.  And the system itself remains -- a system built in the gaping holes of a law that could just as well have been written expressly to be broken.


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