Thirty-seven French Ministers have officially published their individual worth following a directive from President Francois Holland. The discovery that some were wealthy was not surprising; Laurent Fabius headed the list with 6 million Euros. What was surprising was the reaction here in Geneva.
According to the Tribune de Genève of April 16, a cross-section of local elected officials rejected or voiced skepticism regarding greater transparency. The reactions varied from doubts about the real value of certain declarations to a robust rejection of making public what in Switzerland has always been considered the private sphere. The head of the Radical group in Parliament is quoted as saying, “What will have to become public after the net worth? A health report or sexual orientation?” The Mayor of Geneva, Rémy Pagani is quoted as bluntly saying that the demand for greater transparency from public officials is “a radical intrusion into the private sphere. For me, political considerations stop at the entrance to my door.”
There is much to be said about the Holland directive, most of it negative. There is no way that this last minute action will restore public confidence in the current government, just as the hastily arranged television interview on France 2 did not stop the decreasing popularity of the President.
What is most striking, however, is the violence of the reaction in Geneva to what in most countries is common practice. The President of the United States publicly produces his income tax return each year as well as the medical reports of his health by his doctors. Recent American presidents, the Bushes, as well as Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson and certainly John Kennedy, had net wealth well above the average citizen. So what? The fact that they had succeeded financially or inherited money was not a problem. On the contrary, the fact that they had wealth meant that they were less likely to be corrupted. As for medical reports, we would have liked to know about Kennedy’s health because it might have affected his job performance just like the history of depression and electric shock treatments caused vice-presidential candidate Terry Eagleton to resign. As for sexual orientation, the fact that Mayor Delanoë of Paris is openly gay is a nonissue; he made his sexual orientation public when a journalist asked him about it before he was elected mayor.
When people are elected to public office, the space between public and private drastically diminishes. That goes with the territory. A public official dancing in a public place loses privacy as a public official in a public place. All public officials should understand that with their responsibilities go certain privileges as well obligations and loss of privacy. Public officials at the Saturday Marché cannot refuse an inquiring citizen because Saturday is outside office hours.
The criteria of correctly governing should be the highest consideration with which we hold our officials. Céline Amaudruz is on target in the Tribune article when she is quoted as saying, “I want an official who governs correctly.” And knowing about net wealth, health and eventually sexual orientation might help us to understand what the official does and the reasoning behind governing decisions in addition to potential conflicts of interest. This is not a form of voyeurism or search for an elusive truth, as Andrea Bianchi implies in Le Temps of April 18. The exercise of greater transparency is not “grotesque,” as Amaudruz incorrectly concludes. The relationship between citizens and the elected is one of confidence. We want to know about them, and if they are not prepared for us to know, then they should not run for office. When someone considers running for office in the U.S., the first question the party asks is, “Do you have any skeletons in the closet?” To be a public official, after all, is to be public, like it or not.