Mediapart wins battle for openness over French election accounts scrutiny

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It took three years, but Mediapart has finally been vindicated in its fight for full transparency when it comes to scrutinising the campaign accounts of French elections. The highest administrative court in the land, the Conseil d'État, has ruled in favour of Mediapart's demand that the entire process of how election accounts are checked by the official body in charge – the CNCCFP - should be open to the public. The ruling means that whatever the election and whoever the candidate the public has a right to know the full details. Mathilde Mathieu reports on this landmark verdict.

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It is an historic victory. After three years of administrative and legal skirmishes, Mediapart has finally won its battle for complete transparency over the way France's election accounts are scrutinised. The country's highest administrative jurisdiction, the Conseil d'État, has just ruled that the media and citizens should have full access to the process of how candidates' campaign funding is overseen. It is a timely verdict, coming a year after the revelation of the Bygmalion scandal - involving the right-wing UMP and Nicolas Sarkozy's 2012 election accounts – which highlighted the major faults within the current French system of election finance oversight.

Mediapart took its action against the Commission Nationale des Financements Politiques (CNCCFP), the official body that oversees the campaign accounts of election candidates in France. The commission fought tooth and nail to the bitter end to keep secret the process by which it renders its verdicts. But following the Conseil d'État's ruling, delivered on March 27th, it will now have to open up its files.

Mediapart had brought the case in relation to the 2007 presidential election campaign accounts of Nicolas Sarkozy – the details of which this website has been seeking since 2012 - but the impact of this legal precedent goes much wider. It imposes full transparency on the scrutiny of all candidates in all elections, both those in the past – apart from presidential elections before 2007 - and those to come. From President François Hollande to far-right leader Marine Le Pen, and from the head of centrist party MoDem, François Bayrou, to Philippe Poutou, the New Anticapitalist Party's presidential candidate in 2012, no one will be exempt.

Nicolas Sarkozy en meeting à Marseille en 2007 © Reuters Nicolas Sarkozy en meeting à Marseille en 2007 © Reuters

Asked for a comment by Mediapart, the president of the CNCCFP, François Logerot, indicated that he did not comment on decisions by the Conseil d'État. But the mood at the organisation's offices in rue du Louvre, Paris, was said to be downcast.

Until now, officials at the CNCCFP have worked behind closed doors as they sought to ensure that the rules on campaign financing were respected – for example the limits on how much can be spent, the ban on donations from businesses. They had confidential exchanges with the candidates, a kind of one-on-one confrontation, but the respective weaponry at the disposal of the two sides has not always been equal. In fact, ever since it was set up in 1990, the CNCCFP has been under-resourced in terms of legal clout, personnel and money.

The electoral law does already explicitly allow a minimal form of public oversight of the scrutiny process. The public has been able to examine the accounts that are filed by the candidates themselves - the pile of invoices and pay slips and so on – plus the outcome of the decisions made behind close doors by the nine members of the commission after its rapporteurs have gone through the accounts. But what happens in between has, until now, remained shrouded in mystery. Journalists, defeated opponents or the simply curious have had absolutely no right to look at the period covering the commission’s investigation itself, a process that can take several months.

In practice, this has meant that the CNCCFP has always refused to divulge the list of questions sent to the candidates, as well as the replies and the documentary proof supplied by candidates' treasurers. The provisional conclusions of the rapporteurs have also always been kept under lock and key.

In the spring of 2012, convinced that the public had the right to see how the commission worked, Mediapart decided to lead the battle for greater openness. It chose a specific case and was resolved to take the issue to court if necessary. This website's aim was to see if the CNCCFP's rapporteurs carry out their work with tenacity or are just happy to do the 'bare minimum', if they have the resources to carry out their task or if they are forced to make do as best they can. Simply asking these questions was not intended to impugn their ability or honesty.

So Mediapart demanded access to the investigation carried out into Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 election accounts, specifically to the letters exchanged between his treasurer and the CNCCFP's rapporteurs. Why him? It was because Mediapart had discovered a scheme involving secret funding of his campaign by the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, something which would undermine the validity of his accounts, accounts which had been approved more or less untouched by the commission after the 2007 election.

Among other things the aim was to see if the rapporteurs had raised any doubts at the time; if any such doubts had been quickly dispelled or buried; and if the members of the commission had ignored them. There is nothing to indicate this at this stage, but it still needs to be verified.

In its request to the CNCCFP, Mediapart relied on a law from 1978 which gives a right of access to administrative documents, a law that was inspired by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man (Article 15 of which reads: “Society has the right of requesting account from any public agent of its administration”). This little-known and under-used 1978 law allows French people to consult any document produced by an administrative entity, for example a town hall or a ministry (with a few exceptions which are aimed at protecting privacy, the confidentiality of judicial investigations and so on). Yet though the CNCCFP is most certainly an administrative entity, it refused all requests.

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