Saturday, 6 July 2013

An end to the cumul des mandats?

British readers may be puzzled by the French phenomenon of cumul des mandats, which roughly translates as multiple office-holding.  In France, building a local power-base goes hand in hand with a national parliamentary career.  Local office is more powerful and more visible in France and is available at lots of different levels, including local councils (presided by mayors, who are key local figures in every city, town and village), departmental (county) councils, and regional councils, led by powerful presidents.  These local offices can act as a springboard into national politics, but the connection between the two is far deeper and more entrenched than that.  A local politician will see a national role as additional and complementary to a local role, rather than as the next stage of their career.  Hence someone who already holds one (possibly several) local offices, including executive roles such as mayor or president of a departmental council, will be considered a strong parliamentary candidate and will likely continue to hold their local roles at the same time as being a deputy (MP).  There are numerous consequences of this practice, outlined below.  There have also been repeated calls to abolish the cumul, although the entrenched political career structures of French politicians mean that doing so would require parliamentarians to vote against their own self-interest.

So why do French politicians adopt this practice, what are the consequences, and what prospects are there for reform?

There are numerous benefits to holding more than one office at a time.  If you ask someone who does it, they will always focus on the so-called benefits to their constituents.  Having a local office helps deputies to feel connected to their constituents and to stay abreast of local issues, while having a national office gives them the power to defend their constituents' interests through legislation and access to ministers.  The fact that these combined roles should already be covered through the constituency work required of a parliamentarian, and the fact that the local and national constituencies are very rarely identical in composition, are among the reasons cited by the few deputies who do not hold other offices.
If the democratic argument simply does not add up, the less altruistic motivations are abundantly clear.  Firstly, there is a simple financial incentive; two or more jobs means two or more salaries.  This benefit has been somewhat curtailed by legislation limiting an individual's total income from the different offices to 1.5 times a deputy's salary.   This still allows for healthy supplementation of an already generous income, and further allows for the multiplication of other resources, such as office space, secretarial assistance, stationery and the like.  Perhaps more importantly, holding a local office allows a deputy to boost their local notoriety and to become sufficiently powerful and dominant within their constituency that others are unlikely to be able to rival their power-base and present a credible challenge to them.  Running for more than one office allows for additional campaign resources, greater familiarity with voters, and the prestige that comes with success.  Indeed, so important is the combination of local and national office that those deputies who enter politics from above rather than below - that is to say, deputies who start out as parliamentary assistants, aides to the president, unelected ministers or the like, and who therefore obtain a parliamentary or cabinet seat before engaging in local politics, rather than starting local and building their way up to the national level - are compelled to add local office to their national profile.  A national figure needs to secure a local power base and prove their electoral viability.  A local figure may see local executive office, rather than parliamentary office, as the jewel in their political crown.  Hence, French political careers do not proceed in a clear linear direction from local to national; the direction can also be reversed, and the two are combined rather than pursued sequentially.
An additional advantage of holding local office is that it is a useful fallback in the event of a deputy losing their seat, which is a fairly common occurrence at each election, with the French re-electing the incumbent government only once since 1978 (in 2007).  Evicted deputies can use their local office as a source of income to enable them to remain in politics, and as a power base upon which to stage their comeback at the next election.  It is quite common for former deputies to seek re-election at the following election, and many are successful as the political tide swings back in their favour.  Without this resource, it would be much harder to return to politics after losing a parliamentary seat.
The final, and non-negligible, reason why politicians combine offices is that it is the expected practice.  (Almost) everybody does it (; 81% of deputies hold at least one additional office, with 58% of these being an executive role (eg mayor or president), and nearly 75% of senators also hold additional offices.  Therefore those who do not are placed at a significant disadvantage. Interestingly, this latter group is more likely to be female; 45% of female deputies hold only their parliamentary office, compared to 22% of their male counterparts (  This is partly due to the parity legislation, which has enabled women to enter national politics without having to break through the male-dominated closed circles of local politics;  it may also be because women already have enough other demands on their time, or are more conscientious in focusing on their national roles, or it may be because ambitious men are still holding all the cards (see my article on this).  At any rate, the cumul poses a classic collective action problem; no individual can afford to stop unless everyone else stops as well.

Perhaps the most obvious consequence of holding multiple offices at the same time is that politicians become over-stretched.  The role of a parliamentarian is, and should be, a full-time job.  Being mayor of a large municipality or president of a department or region is also a demanding full-time job.  Anyone who tries to combine these roles will inevitably fail to perform either properly.  Local work gets delegated to subordinates, while national work is similarly compromised.  One of the most striking consequences (and causes) of the cumul is a weak parliament, with deputies often attending only two (at most, three) days a week - typically Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when televised questions to the government take place and when most parliamentary committees sit.  Concentrating their parliamentary activity into such a short space of time results in a frantic agenda during these two days, with deputies having very limited availability for meetings.  On other days of the week, parties have to force deputies to take turns attending parliament by rota in order to avoid the embarrassment of an empty chamber.  Legislative debates often go on late into the night, which is hardly conducive to public scrutiny or clarity of decision-making, rather than being discussed properly throughout the week.  Deputies often do not have time to attend to the detail of legislative texts.  The emphasis on local roots and constituency service becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; politicians place more emphasis on their constituency roles than on their parliamentary work, such that the former take on greater import while the latter is marginalised.  Unsurprisingly, a report by Laurent Bach in 2012 revealed that the few deputies who do not combine their office with any other are far more involved, engaged and effective in their role as parliamentarians than those who divide their time between two or more positions.
An additional consequence is that political renewal is stymied by the concentration of power within relatively few hands.  National politicians continue to hold the local offices that might otherwise be a springboard into parliament, making it much harder for newcomers to gain a foothold.  The requirement for political renewal created by gender parity legislation has suffered as a consequence; women have greatly increased their presence on local and regional councils, but have found themselves continually locked out of executive roles, which then makes it harder for them to build the profile expected of a deputy.  Parties sometimes lament the shortage of suitable female parliamentary candidates, but the answer often lies in the fact that the springboard positions are tied up by male cumulards.
Last but not least, the cumul can lead to conflicts of interest.  Deputies are charged first and foremost with serving the national interest, and in my interviews with them, this is what they claim to do.  Yet the divided loyalties created by the cumul create a tension that is more likely to serve the politician's electoral interests than the greater good.

The issue of the cumul is a vexed one that has emerged on many an occasion.  The reasons for abolishing the cumul are compelling, and include strengthening parliament, ensuring that all office-holders devote themselves fully to the role to which they were elected, and diversifying the political elite. The problem is that those empowered to change the law - namely members of parliament - are the very same people who benefit from the status quo.  My interviews with deputies reveal that, at least on the record, many deputies actually support the status quo ideologically as well, convinced that local and national roles are complementary rather than competing.  Thus, previous attempts at reform, introduced by the Socialists in 1985 and 2000, have only managed to tame the beast rather than to conquer it.  At present, deputies may only hold one additional local office at regional, departmental or city level.  Villages of fewer than 3500 inhabitants are excluded, presumably due to the lack of power, resources, demands and hence candidates for these roles.  Politicians are also prevented from combining two major local executive roles.  However, these rules have not prevented deputies from combining parliamentary office with local executive power.
New legislation may now change that.  Deputies voted in favour of the crucial first sections of a new bill designed to curtail multiple office holding by preventing parliamentarians from combining their role with local executive office, such as being a mayor or president of a departmental or regional council.  (In an amusing irony, the vote - which took place on a Thursday, when attendance in parliament is low - was 59 for and 35 against, ie 94 votes cast in an assembly comprising 577 members.)  The bill still has to survive further readings and passage through the Senate, but it stems from a manifesto pledge by the governing party, which has a majority in both chambers of parliament.  The delayed implementation date of 2017 will also help to sweeten the bitter pill, as it will allow deputies to contest the next election with their local offices intact before the legislation comes into effect.  Nonetheless, the proposals have met with some opposition within the Socialist party, with some diehard cumulards feeling that supporting the legislation is rather like turkeys voting for Christmas.
If the legislation does survive intact, it will still allow parliamentarians to combine their roles with non-executive local roles, although the reduced power and benefits of these roles will help to tame some of the worst consequences of the cumul.  However, power is rarely given up without a struggle.  The power dynamics of local and national politics will have to adjust once it is forbidden for a small group of players to hold all the cards, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a reconfiguration of the loci of power such that the current elite are able to preserve at least some of their advantage.  Whether this will lead to a strengthened parliament that becomes the summit of a political career, or an increased weakening of parliament as some of its key players decide to resign their national rather than local offices, remains to be seen.  For the former to be achieved, further reform of parliament as an institution may be necessary.