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French President Nicolas Sarkozy awaits the arrival of African leaders for a lunch at the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 13, 2010.


French president Nicolas Sarkozy went on French national television Monday night to respond to a first-class political crisis called "l'affaire Bettencourt."

This crisis was caused in part by a tape recording made by a butler, related to a daughter's jealosy over an affair her wealthy elderly mother was having with a much younger man, who then... Hmm. Not without complexity, this affair, as they would say in France.

But in the course of this gloriously unlikely story, the people of France have been learning a great deal about how their political parties are financed.

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Le Monde spelled it out in a double-page feature in their July 7th issue. There might be a few lessons for Canada in some of the details.

To begin, with about twice the population France provides its main political parties with in the range of five times as much public support. In 2008, Mr. Saskozy's UMP received €66.2 million in public financing (about $90 million). The opposition Socialist Party received €38.4 million.

As in Canada, these transfers are earned by vote -- the higher the vote, the larger the funding.

In addition, the Socialists collected €20.9 million in 2008 from party dues and contributions, compared to €10.4 million for the Conservative UMP. The Socialists required their elected representatives to tithe a total of €22.3 million from their salaries to the party. The UMP raised only €3.3 million this way. And the Socialists raised €2.9 million from corporations and other organizations -- compared to €14.2 million for the UMP.

In total, the Socialists had €59.1 million to work with. The UMP had €52.1 million (another party put an additional €31 million into the right's column).

Since Jan. 1, 2009, more than 40 new parties have been chartered in France. Why? Because French electoral law limits individual and corporate donations to €7,500 per party. To evade this and maximize their private fundraising, the Conservatives have been chartering new parties for each of their leading ministers and candidates. So, for example, the new "association de soutien a l'action de Benoist Apparu" has launched (the "association to support the work of Benoist Apparu" -- the minister for housing).

As is evident from various rehearsal articles appearing in our own media in recent weeks, our own Conservatives here in Canada seem set to make the return of big money to our political system a central part of the next Canadian federal election. This will be clothed in the usual Orwellian double-speak used by North America's political right. Returning to the bad old days of bagmen and special interest fundraising will "end the handouts," we will be told. In fact it would replace clean public financing (that keeps parties focused on winning public support) with private financing (that is intended to refocus parties on their traditional masters). Bay Street and the oil companies would love it.

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The French have gone the other way. They want their political parties to be large, well-funded organizations capable of operating serious think-tanks; discussing public policy seriously; contesting elections seriously; and keeping governments accountable, seriously.

Once upon a time, convention in Canadian federal politics was for the governing party to partner closely with opposition parties and to develop improvements to our financing and electoral laws, one step at a time, through all-party consensus. Not any more. Stephen Harper's only interest in electoral law is to develop populist braying that will resonate in tabloid newspapers (in their various forms).

But if the day ever came when we could talk about these issues seriously, the French model is worth a look. It is about building strong, serious parties, rather than infantilizing them.

That said, as all the new, phony French parties-of-convenience demonstrate, private-interest money will always look for ways to corrupt any political system.

The French are going to have to fix that. Canada's own Conservative government wants to embrace it. But we won't let them do that -- will we?

Meanwhile, Happy Bastille Day!

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