U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Formula One racing champion Lewis Hamilton, Queen Elisabeth II, Madonna. These are some of the names revealed in the “Paradise Papers” leak that shocked the Anglo-Saxon world. Across the channel in France, however, the revelations have triggered less inquiry towards celebrities as it has reignited public indignation towards their government’s apparent policy of tolerance regarding offshore accounts and tax optimization.
Within hours of the Paradise Papers story breaking, France’s young president Emmanuel Macron came under criticism from political rivals.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who finished fourth with 20 percent of the vote in this year’s hotly contested first round of the presidential election, lamented what he views as the French government’s lack of assertiveness in fighting tax evasion. “Systematic feet-dragging” was the popular firebrand’s way of describing the French government’s approach. Mélenchon’s condemnation was followed by the implication that as the former minister of the economy,
Macron played a role in the scandal by neglecting his duty to put into place measures to prevent tax evasion.
The Socialist Party applauded the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for their investigation, calling on Macron to continue the anti-tax evasion policies put into place by President François Hollande. The Green Party also issued a statement to denounce sophisticated, “barely legal” tax arrangements that generate what is estimated to be 350 billion euros annually of lost tax revenue for governments around the world, 20 billion euros of which is tax revenue lost for the French state.
The left was not the only force in the French political landscape to pressure the Macron administration in the wake of the Paradise Papers. Marine Le Pen’s far right Front National party issued a press release on the same day as Mélenchon’s comments, denouncing a Macron government that lacks the political courage to fight tax optimization or challenge the European Union bureaucracy that protects the preferential tax policies of some EU member states, specifically Ireland, Malta, and the Netherlands.
This was not the first time that the Front National has tried to leverage the offshore account issue to gain an edge over Macron, who positioned himself at the intersection of laissez-faire economics and progressive social values. Newcomer internationalist Macron and far-right nationalist Le Pen were the top two presidential candidates who advanced into the second round run-off election, representing conflicting visions of France’s role in the world. During their head-to-head televised debate, Le Pen pressed Macron about his personal finances: “No one understood your explanations about your estate …. I hope that we will not learn that you have an offshore account in the Bahamas!”
This accusation was based on unverified documents published anonymously on an online forum a few hours prior to the debate. Macron reacted forcefully, decrying “fake news” in a press release and filing a defamation complaint in court the day after the documents appeared. Although Macron is a new face in the French political scene, he is savvy enough to understand that the offshore issue touches a raw nerve in France.
Shortly before Macron’s arrival at the Finance Ministry, a scandal engulfed the Hollande administration’s Budget Minister, Jérôme Cahuzac. The independent French media organization Mediapart published accusations against Cahuzac of holding an undeclared account in Switzerland. Cahuzac stood before the National Assembly and publicly denied the existence of undeclared foreign bank accounts, yet evidence would emerge exposing his offshore accounts. Years after his resignation in March 2013, the Panama Papers would also reveal Cahuzac as the owner of a shell company based in the Seychelles. The former budget minister was convicted in December 2016 of tax fraud and is currently appealing his prison sentence.
The affair dealt irreparable damage to the image of François Hollande, a lesson that may not have been lost on Macron who would later resign from Hollande’s cabinet. He dedicated himself to his newly formed political party En Marche!, which swept into public office across France with no pre-existing constituency or infrastructure, successfully dislodging France’s two historically dominant political parties the Socialists and the Republicans.
What forces and what policy proposals propelled the new political actor Macron and his new political party into power? There is no simple explanation as Macron won with a politically diverse alliance that does not resemble any past administrations of the ancien régime.
Despite the criticism from both the left and the right, the enigmatic Emmanuel Macron has been silent on the matter of offshore accounts. One explanation may be that Macron remains relatively popular although he nimbly avoids weighing in on contentious issues such as tax optimization.
The President of the French Republic received a terrific gift for his 40th birthday this December: A new poll shows that 52 percent of French people are satisfied with Macron’s performance, a figure that is up by 11 percent versus the previous month. Not all the news from the poll is positive, however, as 67 percent of respondents judged Macron to be the “president of the wealthy.” A similar epithet was effectively applied to the personal style of President Nicolas Sarkozy by his opponents – the re-election of the “bling bling president” did not appeal to a majority of the French electorate who preferred voting for the candidate who promoted himself as the “normal president,” François Hollande.
To prevent these perceptions from gaining ground, Macron is working to bolster his credibility with the left after having expended political capital on labor reforms, the abolishment of a direct wealth tax on high net worth individuals, and reduced housing benefits. There has been an ongoing pivot in Macron’s political agenda towards issues such as urban renewal and anti-discrimination measures.
This pivot to the left is indicative of the fine line Macron is walking. How can a French President help his country battle economic stagnation and a 10 percent unemployment rate? How can the President do this and avoid the baggage that comes with opponents labelling his solution as right-wing or neo-liberal? How can Macron’s fledgling En Marche! party satisfy both a restless public and the international business community without alienating key constituencies of his broad coalition?
Offshore accounts are one such subject where the administration’s balancing act can be observed. The Macron administration cannot completely ignore an issue that occupies a large space in the public mind after years of hostile media attention. For example, last year’s Panama Papers leak elicited headlines such as Le Parisien’s “The Worldwide Heist,” Charlie Hebdo’s “Fiscal Terrorism,” and Le Monde’s interactive online feature “Stairway to Tax Heaven: The Game.”
Contrary to President Sarkozy’s bold 2009 promise to put an end to tax havens, the statements issued thus far by the Macron administration have been received by some critics as inconclusive and equivocal. “This is a concern,” stated the government’s spokesperson Christophe Castaner in reaction to the Paradise Papers. Castaner added that a distinction must be made between legal and illegal tax optimization practices. “If there were violations, they will be immediately prosecuted,” he said.
Macron’s Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, reacted with harsher rhetoric. Tax evasion is an “attack against democracy,” stated Le Maire at the National Assembly. Le Maire then promised that he would go to Brussels to propose measures to increase transparency with the support of his European counterparts.
On Dec. 5, the 28 Finance Ministers of the European Union came together to take their first concrete action against the sort of tax evasion revealed in the Paradise Papers. The ministers agreed on a blacklist of 17 countries identified as tax havens, or jurisdictions which fail on tax good governance standards. Another 47 countries were specified in a “graylist,” including countries such as Switzerland, which are expected to pass reforms to comply with EU standards. The sanctions for noncompliance are to still be defined.
On a European level, the blacklist is being welcomed as a good first step. Pierre Moscovici, Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, declared: “The adoption of the first ever EU blacklist of tax havens marks a key victory for transparency and fairness. But the process does not stop here …. There must be no naivety: promises must be turned into actions. No one must get a free pass.”
This sounds very similar to the rhetoric of the head of the France Insoumise party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has not minced words: “I think that we should shift from indignation to action. The president of the Republic and the prime minister must tell us how much longer they plan on tolerating the pillaging that is happening in our country, either by fraud or by evasion.”
Bruno Le Maire was quick to celebrate the EU’s action, highlighting the political courage it took to publish a list which includes states close to the EU and to France. However, critics were quick to respond. Green Party Eurodeputy Eva Joly criticized the hypocrisy of the EU for conspicuous omissions in their list: “The EU must sweep in front of its doorstep” and that the list effectively “whitewashes notorious tax havens.” Oxfam France’s Manon Aubry tweeted that the list is “not very credible” as the world’s principal tax havens are absent: Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and others including EU member states such as Ireland.
Again, Macron is faced with a political dilemma that has no easy answers. How can the administration reconcile its statements that they will fight tax evasion while also pushing an image of a new France that is open for business, enticing multinationals to invest and French tax exiles to repatriate?
The answer, as with many aspects of French life, may be in the nuance. Spokesperson Castaner was careful in his statement to distinguish violations of French tax law from tax optimization which is grounded in national and international law. This much can be known: individuals and businesses who are found to have violated French tax law will be prosecuted. This is especially true within Macron’s political circles. After witnessing the taint left by Cahuzac and the embezzlement investigation that derailed the campaign of one-time presidential favorite François Fillon, Macron and his team will do what is necessary to protect his carefully crafted image.
In terms of new legislation on offshore accounts, it is likely that any further developments would come under the auspices of the EU rather than France’s national government. The trading bloc will want to act in unison, reassuring European citizens that corrective actions are being made while not isolating any key trade partners. The 17-country blacklist should be watched closely: The severity of the sanctions and the treatment of the 47 gray list countries will ultimately determine if these efforts amount to a communications campaign or if the EU is serious in its pursuit to punish tax evaders and to limit tax optimization.
In France, Macron has laid out an ambitious legislative agenda for 2018 which will make major reforms to economic, immigration, and fiscal policy. This busy agenda, Macron’s popularity, and his influence on French media will likely spare him from addressing the sensitive topic of offshore accounts. Additionally, any push to strengthen offshore account regulations would risk drawing attention to Macron’s personal fortune and previous life as a banker at Rothschild & Cie, exposing a political vulnerability and reinforcing the growing perception that Macron advances policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the lower class.
Lastly, what forces external to the Macron administration could play his hand? The opposition appears to be disorganized. Macron defeated Marine Le Pen by a margin of 10.1 million votes in the second-round run-off election, winning with 66 percent of the vote. Adding to Front National’s woes following the defeat, Le Pen was charged with misappropriating European Parliament funds, HSBC closed Le Pen’s personal bank account, and Société Générale closed a party account.
With the Socialist Party’s poor election showing and key members of the Republican Party defecting to the Macron administration and En Marche!, Mélenchon is one of the only national political figures left to vocally oppose Macron. While his election performance exceeded expectations, Mélenchon’s left-wing rhetoric can be divisive. By positioning himself closer to the center, Macron’s appeal is much broader than Mélenchon’s, limiting any meaningful opposition from the left.
In summary, Macron’s position of strength after his first eight months in office and the absence of an organized opposition to bring the issue to the forefront has resulted in an official response that ranges from reticence to ambiguity. If more leaks come, Macron makes a misstep that alienates parts of his coalition or the media, or a new opposition voice emerges, then the new political calculus may goad the administration to pursue a political victory by limiting offshore accounts. The offshore issue will not be going away soon in France’s ideological climate, but with no impetus to catalyze significant reforms, investors and citizens ought to distinguish threats from sanctions, promises from legislation, and rhetoric from action.