French tax witch hunt fears as enemy of ‘Thatcherite neoliberal’ order wins key parliament post

·3 min read
Eric Coquerel’s election is the latest sign of the growing clout of radical parties in France - Julien de Rosa/AFP via Getty Images
Eric Coquerel’s election is the latest sign of the growing clout of radical parties in France - Julien de Rosa/AFP via Getty Images

The new chairman of France’s powerful financial parliamentary committee is an ex-Trotskyite who believes in smashing the “Thatcherite neoliberal” order.

Rivals fear Eric Coquerel could use the post to expose the tax details of wealthy French citizens and the country’s business elite for political gain. The 63-year-old  MP is one of the most senior members of Left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed, or LFI, party.

His election is the latest sign of the growing clout of radical parties after Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Together alliance lost control of parliament in elections this month.

On Wednesday, Marine Le Pen’s hard-Right National Rally obtained two assembly vice-presidencies.

The finance committee vote was keenly watched because the body has extensive powers, including oversight of the French budget and the ability to order impromptu checks on ministries to see how the state spends public money.

Its president can also gain access to the confidential tax declarations of companies or individuals. While these cannot be published, Mr Coquerel’s rivals claimed in the run-up to the vote of a risk that a Leftist radical could be tempted to breach this rule for political gain.

Eric Woerth, the outgoing Conservative finance committee chairman, who recently joined the Macron camp, said the chairman’s role was to “control government action and public policies, not to stick his nose into [tax] dossiers of this or that individual, family or business”. After the vote, he expressed “doubts about France Unbowed respecting this”.

Gilles Carrez, his Right-wing predecessor, said: “The fear is that as LFI is constantly political and has an extremely strong ideological content that it could be tempted to organise leaks.

“Tax secrecy is dynamite, and one has to be extremely responsible. It is a fundamental element in a democratic country. To throw individuals’ or businesses’ tax details to the dogs is the start of totalitarianism.”

It is also punishable by a year in prison and a €15,000 fine.

Mr Coquerel has insisted he has no intention of ordering any “individual witch hunts” and said: “I embody a real opposition to the system and the end to Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’,” he said. “We defend a programme that breaks with neoliberalism but we know how to do so within the framework of democracy.”

He said that “we are not going to use it to target political opponents”, but added that if he could use his position to track down tax evasion by big companies “I won’t hesitate to do so”.

The committee also has the power to strike down draft amendments on any legislation if it considers that it will unnecessarily weigh on public finances.

The outcome is a setback for the National Rally, which had argued that it deserved the chair as the biggest single opposition group with 89 seats. However, while the LFI has fewer MPs with 75, it is part of a wider Left-Green alliance called Nupes that boasts 151 seats overall.

RN had hoped to use the post to boost its credentials as a credible party that is fit to govern. Jean-Philippe Tanguy, its defeated candidate, said his rival’s election was “not only illegitimate in terms of the rules, it’s piracy and a major threat to the economic stability of the country”.

Mr Macron’s failure to forge a parliamentary majority complicates his reform plans and has forced him to seek alliances with MPs from other parties to cobble together a majority, which Elisabeth Borne, his embattled prime minister, has so far failed to secure. She is due to outline her plans in an address to parliament next Wednesday.

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