PARIS The justice minister wants to be a mayor. So does the finance minister. And the culture minister. And the government spokesman.
The races for France’s municipal elections in March have not even started, but nearly two-thirds of the 33 members of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet have already transformed themselves into part-time politicians, declaring that they deserve to be the next mayors and deputy mayors of France.
Some, like the education minister, already are mayors and are running for re-election. Others, like the budget minister, are former mayors who want their old jobs back.
“It’s a way for a minister to stay in contact with the soil,” said Xavier Bertrand, the labor minister, who wants to be deputy mayor of St.-Quentin, a town in northeast France. “It’s much better than looking at polls.”
In a peculiarly French practice called “accumulation of mandates,” certain government officials are allowed to hold more than one elected office. The minister-mayor phenomenon was largely eliminated as unseemly during the era of President Jacques Chirac (who had served simultaneously as prime minister and mayor of Paris). But it has been proudly revived by Mr. Sarkozy as a way to expand his government’s influence.
It is also a way to keep power at the top. “You have to understand that France is still a sort of elected monarchy,” said André Santini, a junior minister who is running for re-election in the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, where he has been mayor for 28 years.
Critics call the minister-mayor practice an undemocratic, outdated, power-grabbing ploy that raises conflicts of interest and smacks of carpetbagging. And for city halls around France, it would encourage already problematic absenteeism, because cabinet positions are supposed to be full-time jobs.
“Seen from the United States, it would be as if the American secretary of the Treasury was running as mayor or deputy mayor of Boston,” said Dominique Rousseau, who specializes in constitutional law.
In announcing the government’s electoral strategy last weekend, Prime Minister François Fillon praised it as a desirable politicization of local elections. The municipal contests will become plebiscites on Mr. Sarkozy’s government, and so keep the political focus squarely on the governing party, which the president long directed. He added that Mr. Sarkozy himself would be out campaigning.
“If we don’t politicize the municipal elections and the results are bad, we will be blamed,” Mr. Fillon said. The goal, he added, is to help the governing conservative Union for a Popular Movement party “conquer” new cities and towns.
At his news conference last Tuesday, Mr. Sarkozy proclaimed, “I will get involved because even the concept of depoliticized elections is absurd.” He already is planning to campaign in Nice for Christian Estrosi, his junior minister for overseas territories, who is running for mayor there.
For the moment, resentment against the strategy is felt most acutely in Paris, where each of the city’s 20 districts, or arrondissements, has its city hall and elected mayor and deputies. Here, the Sarkozy government has decided to put forward as candidates on party lists a number of high-profile ministers, including Culture Minister Christine Albanel, in the Fourth Arrondissement (covering the Île St.-Louis and part of the Île de la Cité and the Marais) and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde in the more working-class 12th Arrondissement.
“It’s a very archaic vision of power,” said Dominique Bertinotti, the Socialist mayor of the Fourth Arrondissement and a part-time university professor. “Being a minister should be a full-time job. Voters want better than this sort of political parachuting.”
Most surprising is the government’s decision to promote Justice Minister Rachida Dati in the chic, staunchly conservative Seventh Arrondissement. There, the incumbent, Michel Dumont, is a beloved fixture of the neighborhood and a member of the governing party.
Ms. Dati has been much criticized for her plan to reform the country’s judicial structure and for posing for a recent photo spread in Paris-Match in Dior, black fishnet stockings and stiletto-heeled black boots. To many residents, she does not seem like a natural fit for such a buttoned-down neighborhood.
At the invitation-only, post-New Year’s party at the city hall of the Seventh on Thursday night, long-time residents lined up in a gilt-ceilinged ballroom to drink free Champagne and assure their mayor he could count on their votes.
“Our mayor has been here for decades, he knows all of us, he visits the small shopkeepers, and even used to sing at the 11 o’clock Mass at church,” said Patrice Bardin, a businessman who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. “We are a village here, where families stay forever and hand down their apartments to their children, not a place for nouveaux riches. Rachida has never been here before.”
But political tradition in France dictates that appointed government officials gain legitimacy only with an elected office under their belts. Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, for example, was dismissed as a serious contender for the presidency in part because he had never been elected to any position.
Just as important, an elected perch gives cabinet members a place to land if they should be dismissed from government. Returning to the private sector without holding onto a government post is considered humiliating.
“They do it to have fiefdoms of their own,” said Pierre Sadran, a political scientist who has written a book on the issue. “It gives them job security in case they lose their ministerial jobs. From a moral point of view, maybe it looks scandalous. But if voters feel that way, they won’t vote for them.”
Cabinet members do not seem to feel that a conflict of interest exists, because, they say, in most cases, mayors do not make big budgetary decisions. Asked about the appearance of a conflict of interest if he were to become mayor, Mr. Bertrand, the labor minister, seemed genuinely puzzled by the question.
“I don’t know what you want me to say that the sports minister is going to install a stadium financed by the state in his town?” he asked. “That makes no sense. We have financial rules in France.”
The extra money the cabinet members earn as mayors is rarely as important as the prestige. Except for mayors’ jobs in the big cities, most are treated as less than full-time and do not carry high salaries. Ministers and other cabinet members are allowed to take the salary of the elected office, up to a monetary limit. A full minister is allowed to earn up to $30,800 a month in government jobs, according to the prime minister’s office.
More than any other major European country, France allows its politicians to hold multiple political posts. About 85 percent of lawmakers in the Senate and the National Assembly hold second elected jobs, compared with well below 20 percent in Italy, Britain and Germany.
Even so, some restrictions apply to electoral moonlighting. A member of the cabinet is not allowed to serve as a deputy to the Senate or National Assembly, for example. A parliamentary deputy is allowed to serve also as mayor or regional president, but is not allowed to serve in the European Parliament.
But for the Sarkozy government, electoral victory is so identified with success that losing an election has translated into losing a cabinet job as well.
In a political rule peculiar to France, government ministers and certain other senior officials are allowed to run for Parliament, but then give up the posts to designated stand-ins if they win. After the parliamentary elections last June, cabinet members who lost their races for Parliament lost twice, as Mr. Fillon forced them to give up their executive branch jobs.
Alain Juppé, for example, the minister of a new high-profile megaministry for the environment and energy had to quit after his legislative loss.
“When you’re beaten,” Mr. Fillon explained at the time, “it means you don’t have the people’s support.”
The decision to promote cabinet members as mayoral candidates coincides with a much-criticized decision by Mr. Sarkozy’s government to hire a private company to give each of them a performance report card. Mr. Sarkozy has not yet said what the consequences might be for those who lose in their bids for city hall on election day.