The president of France’s parliament is being raked over the coals for hiring his wife as an assistant at the same time that he is seeking to reduce expenses incurred by MPs.
Claude Bartolone, chief of the National Assembly and member of the ruling Socialist Party, unveiled a 10 percent reduction in MP’s expenses, while imposing a five-tear budget freeze on parliament.
Seeking to close a €30 billion ($39 billion) gap in public finances, the Paris government will introduce a new austerity budget that hopes to cut the state’s debt to the EU-mandated 3 percent of GDP by next year. Among other measures, MPs will face greater scrutiny over their expenses (which have been cut, along with perks like first-class train travel).
MPs will now have to scrape by on a monthly net salary of €5,189 and monthly expenses of €5,800. In addition, they receive annual payments of €109,000 for their staffs.
The new administration of Francois Hollande has already slashed the salaries of the president and ministers by 30 percent.
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“Transparency is a serious matter and should be treated seriously," Bartolone said, according to the Le Monde newspaper, adding he hoped to find "the right balance between transparency and independence.”
However, French media reported that Bartolone hired his spouse, Veronique, as his assistant in charge of women's rights.
"I didn't take on my wife; I married my assistant," Bartolone told reporters, denying any impropriety in the affair. "She has been my partner since 1998.”
According to the Daily Telegraph newspaper of Britain, Bartolone’s private secretary, Jean-Luc Porcedo, backed his boss.
"If bakers can employ their wives to help them out, then why not MPs?"
Opposition figures predictably blasted Bartolone and what they perceive as hypocrisy and a conflict of interest.
“Funny day to announce the hiring of Mrs. Bartolone the office of President of the National Assembly. In politics, one must be surrounded by people you trust," Theirry Solere, a lawmaker for the right-wing UMP party, tweeted, according to Le Figaro.
"Good news on the unemployment front: Mrs. Bartolone is joining her president hubby in his cabinet!" conservative MP Lionnel Luca posted on his Twitter account, in a sarcastic reference to 3 million jobless French men and women.
"It is troubling coming on the very day we discuss the use of funds earmarked for MPs. It's hardly ideal," another right-wing politician, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, said.
French observers fear that the government may become embroiled in the kind of expense scandal that engulfed the British parliament three years ago.
"Knowing that some colleagues use part of this allowance for expenses other than professional ones, there will one day be a big scandal, like in Great Britain," said Charles de Courson, a transparency activist.