France’s drive for ethical politics

A new president and his young party have already shaken the traditional (and often corrupt) political order. Now Emmanuel Macron aims to set tough rules on ethics for French lawmakers. How will his reform differ from that in other countries?

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony marking the 77th anniversary of late French General Charles de Gaulle's resistance call of June 18, 1940, at the Mont Valerien memorial in Suresnes, near Paris.

Fresh off big election victories for himself and his young party, France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, plans to further rock his country’s politics this week. His first legislative priority is to pass new rules on ethics for elected leaders. These are aimed at curbing the kind of corrupt practices that eroded public trust in France’s two traditional parties – which are now in the political wilderness after the recent elections.

Mr. Macron’s reforms include creating a public bank to finance political parties and a requirement that lawmakers report their expenses. In addition, any lawmaker convicted of fraud or corruption would be barred from holding office for 10 years. He also seeks to ban lawmakers from hiring family members. In the previous legislature, about a sixth of the members had family on the public payroll.

He says these rules will “moralize” political life, which is needed in a country where former prime ministers and many other leaders have been convicted of corruption or shown disdain for public opinion. Several other countries, such as Brazil and India, are in the midst of anti-corruption drives, but Macron’s efforts in France are worth watching for three reasons:

One, despite his image of honesty and promise of clean governance, the new president has already stumbled. Four of his cabinet ministers, all from another party, had to resign this week after news broke that they were under investigation for allegations of unethical behavior. Having won the election in large part because of the public’s high intolerance of corruption, Macron was forced to let them go. France’s old system of a privileged political class is now up against the rising demands of equality before the law.

Two, creating an ethical culture in politics is essential for Macron to pass his proposed economic reforms, such as an easing of rules on firing workers. If the public can trust that his government is not corrupt, it may more easily accept the changes needed to boost innovation and reduce high unemployment.

Three, while Macron offers practical reasons for the new ethical rules, his personal background suggests his underlying motives. For two years, he worked for one of France’s famous philosophers, the late Paul Ricoeur, helping him in writing books. Ricoeur, who died in 2005, was known for defining an “ethics of responsibility” based on modern ideas and Christian theology. He suggested that a system of ethical rules can help individuals honor the golden rule (“only do to others what you would want them to do to you”). But it is a “love command,” or the commandment to love one’s enemies, that supersedes ethics and interprets the golden rule. Love is a “gift” that helps bring an awareness of others and creates a responsibility to them.

Macron’s reforms on ethics are expected to be approved. His party holds a large majority in the lower house of Parliament and more than half of those new members have never been in politics before. At a time when both British and American politics are experiencing uncertainty, France can set an example of how to challenge an established order and also bring in a high level of integrity.

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