Still too many shortcomings in the control of lobbies in France

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The revelations about Uber’s lobbying practices in 2014 with Emmanuel Macron brought back to the fore the question of the influence of pressure groups on public decision-makers. If transparency has been canceled since the time when the current president was Minister of the Economy, much remains to be done to make these controls more effective and to demystify the relationship between the executive and private interests.

The revelations of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) on the practices of Uber in France and the privileged relationship of the VTC giant with Emmanuel Macron, then Minister of the Economy, once again highlight the influence of lobbies in the making of the law and the opacity surrounding their relations with public decision-makers.

Shortcomings in the regulation of the activity of representatives of private interests which led, on Wednesday July 13, the European Commission to recommend to France in its annual report on the rule of law to better apply the rules on lobbying, in particular for the “highest functions of the executive”.

For many years, parliamentarians or members of the executive have protested against the influence of pressure groups. This old debate had notably resurfaced in 2018 when Nicolas Hulot, then Minister of Ecology, had slammed the door of the government, denouncing the weight of lobbies, in particular that of hunting.

If the subject arouses so much tension in France, it is in particular because it challenges the conception of the general interest, notes Jean-François Kerléo, jurist and member of the Observatory of public ethics. “In France, we have a very demanding conception of the general interest which contributes to excluding particular interests and to considering them as necessarily unfavorable. In this sense, we clearly distinguish ourselves from the approach of the Anglo-Saxon culture for which the general interest is a confrontation between particular interests serving to reach a consensus.

“The problem with this French taboo is that it encourages decision-makers to remain opaque about their relations with its pressure groups”, abounds Kévin Gernier, advocacy officer at Transparency International France. “It feeds distrust and practices that are not ethical as demonstrated by the Uber Files”.

“A trompe-l’oeil transparency”

However, control of the activity of lobbies has made great progress in France over the past ten years. The turning point was in 2017 with the Sapin II law which obliges all lobbyists to register with the High Authority for Transparency in Public Life (HATVP) and to list their activities under penalty of criminal sanction.

Associations, private companies, unions, law firms, foundations, consulting firms… Currently, 2,451 representatives of private interests are registered in the HATVP directory and more than 52,000 actions have been recalled to ministers, parliamentarians, certain senior civil servants and, since July 1, local public officials.

>> To read, the France 24 webdoc: lobbies in France, fantasies and realities

However, many holes in the persistent racket, according to specialists interviewed by France 24. “It remains a transparency in trompe-l’oeil. For example, no reporting obligation weighs on public decision-makers”, explains Kevin Gernier. Some lobbies can therefore easily take refuge behind this flaw in order not to declare themselves to the HATVP.

Another downside: the content of lobbyists’ declarations provides little applicable information on the nature of their activities and on the identity of the political leaders with whom they are in contact. We can thus read on the HATVP site that such and such a company met “a minister” or “a deputy” without indication of date or place.

“We would have to know why a lobbyist entered into communication with a political representative and what the objective was. At that time, there would be traceability and we could measure the impact of his action on a text of law” , pleads Jean-François Kerléo.

“Turnkey” amendments

The Uber Files have also highlighted a practice which, without being illegal, questions the functioning of our democracy: that of turnkey amendments or when lobbyists propose texts already drafted, to be voted on as is or slightly revised to parliamentarians.

Here again, it is not a question of prohibiting this common practice but of making it more transparent by revealing the origin of the amendments. “Some parliamentarians do this when it comes to quoting an anti-corruption or environmental defense association, but when it comes to testing that Monsanto or Coca-Cola has blown you an amendment, this raises a little more problem vis-à-vis public opinion”, ironically Jean-François Kerléo.

>> To see: “Uber Files”: revelations about Uber’s aggressive methods of establishing itself in the world

To clarify the process of making the law, Transparency International is campaigning for “the creation of a platform where lobbies could submit their suggestions for amendments in an open manner and in which parliamentarians could draw”, specifies Kevin Gernier. “This requires then evaluating the parliamentary added value,” adds the NGO’s advocacy officer.

For his part, Jean-François Kerléo defended the obligation to indicate the source of the amendments to make the action of politicians more readable. “This would have the virtue of making parliamentarians think and not table amendments just to inflate their statistics. is built in this permanent relationship between society and its representatives”.


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