For the past two weeks, the spotlight has inevitably been on François Hollande, France’s new socialist president. Last Tuesday, his first day in office, was not entirely happy: he got soaked during his triumphal progress, his plane was struck by lightning and Angela Merkel had to manoeuvre him forcibly around the red carpet. It can’t be easy scaling the learning curve. But what happens when it’s all over and you’re downgraded to being an ordinary citizen again?
Actually, there is no such thing as being an ordinary citizen once you have been president, except in one important respect: you lose immunity from prosecution for alleged misdemeanours. Nicolas Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, received a two-year suspended sentence in December 2011 for misusing public money as mayor of Paris during the 1990s. He is the only former president in the 5th Republic to have been tried in a criminal court. Sarkozy will continue to enjoy immunity for another month.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Former presidents can look forward to a monthly pension of €6,000 euros, a fully furnished and equipped apartment and office space funded out of the public purse. They also get two police officers to assure their security, a state car with two chauffeurs, a staff of seven and free business-class travel on Air France and SNCF (national rail company).
They also have the right, under Article 56 of the French Constitution, to sit on the Conseil Constitutionnel (Constitutional Council), for an additional stipend of €11,500 per month. The 11-member council verifies that laws voted by the Assemblée Nationale (Parliament) conform to the constitution before the President signs them off. Sarkozy will receive this emolument even if he returns to work as a lawyer, as he has suggested he might.
The annual cost of these benefits to the French state is estimated at around €1.5m per former president. Since there are three of them – Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (86), Jacques Chirac (79) and now Nicolas Sarkozy (57) – this adds up to about €4.5m per year. Given the size of the French national debt, this is a fleabite, really.
On the one hand you could argue that none of these people actually needs the financial benefits, being personally well-off already. On the other, you could contend that this is probably a lot less than some captains of industry get when they retire. And the job of president is 24/7 for the duration. It mystifies me that anyone would want to do it.
Since losing to François Mitterand in the presidential elections of 1981, Giscard d’Estaing has been active not only in promoting the Auvergne region but also on the European stage. But he has never managed to come back on a national level. Chirac has had health problems in addition to his conviction and it’s unlikely that he will play much part in public life again. It’s hard to imagine Sarkozy being content to return to the law. Politics is in his blood and I think he’ll find it hard to resist its siren call. 2017 is only five years away…
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