Dispatch

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Just one year into François Hollande's presidency, he's on the ropes and praying for a miracle.

PARIS — François Hollande's presidency has been disfigured by a plastic surgeon.

Oh, the irony. The current head of state is that rare, big-time French politician who does not ooze vanity. Unlike former President Nicolas Sarkozy, an exercise freak who wore lifts in his shoes and worked hard to hide the peculiarities of his body, Hollande seems comfortable with his short stature. He battles his paunch, but it is more like a gentle competition with an old friend. His one smidgen of vanity is all the more humanizing: He dyes the little that remains of his hair with a product that looks, well, cheap.

So it was a bit surprising to see Hollande in the company of a man like Jérôme Cahuzac. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault chose the ambitious, serpentine plastic surgeon to be his budget minister soon after the May 2012 presidential election. While Cahuzac has worn many faces, it is becoming clear that the most dramatic makeover of his career may be of Hollande and his Socialist government, a group that was supposed to be an antidote to the bling-bling presidency of Sarkozy.

Cahuzac began his career in the 1980s as a traditional surgeon who rose to head the public medical clinic where he practiced until he was invited in 1988 to join the cabinet of the minister of health, Claude Évin.

In 1991, Cahuzac went into the private sector, leaping into the superficial world of plastic surgery and hair implants. It seems to have been quite lucrative given that he and his soon-to-be ex-wife own a vast apartment on the posh Avenue de Breteuil in Paris's 7th arrondissement, and that they are subject to France's wealth tax. In 1993, the ambitious surgeon began to work as a technical advisor to a wide array of pharmaceutical labs and continued to bounce between the business and political worlds, becoming the health advisor to the Socialist Party's failed presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, in 1995. In 1997, he won election to Parliament, where, thanks to his sharp public speaking and searing criticism of the conservative government's fiscal policies, he became a notable figure in the opposition. In 2010 he was elected to preside over the parliamentary commission on finance, the economy, and budgetary control.

Cahuzac was a devoted backer of Dominique Strauss-Kahn until the popular IMF head's presidential aspirations collapsed when he was charged with sexually assaulting a cleaning lady in a New York City hotel. Thus, it was somewhat unexpected that Hollande, the eventual Socialist nominee, appointed Cahuzac to oversee France's budget. From the start, the role of budget minister was particularly crucial, as Hollande had promised to make rich people pay more, while cracking down on individual and corporate tax evaders -- a program that was designed to help shrink France's troubling budget deficit and "moralize" the country's relationship to money. The role required Cahuzac to have impeccable credentials and utter credibility. After tapping corporate France and the rich, his next step was going to be the enactment of ever increasing deficit reductions, which are expected to total more than 10 billion euros in 2013 and perhaps a greater amount in 2014. Pain will surely be inflicted on some of the sacred cows of Socialist supporters, with a possible increase in the retirement age for most people. Tax increases on corporations and the rich, along with a bevy of cuts, make for a polarizing policy, and critics on the right have lambasted the president's economic agenda. (Actor Gérard Depardieu became a poster boy for anti-Hollande-ism when he moved abroad and became France's most famous self-imposed tax exile.

But no one quite saw this coming.

The first scent of trouble came in December, when the French investigative website Mediapart published an investigative article alleging that Cahuzac, who was effectively Hollande's tax czar, had an unreported Swiss bank account. Cahuzac threatened to attack Mediapart in court and vociferously denied the allegation both in public and directly to the president. He also went before Parliament and swore to longtime colleagues: "I do not have, I have never had, an account abroad, not now, not ever."

The government looked into the accusations, while French court investigators took up the case in a more formal manner. The government concluded that the allegations were baseless, but the judicial investigation followed up on Mediapart's lead and eventually found enough evidence to issue the French equivalent of a preliminary indictment. In March, Cahuzac did what most ministers do in such a situation: He resigned to defend himself. And many of his political allies continued to talk up his probity.

Then came the bombshell. On April 2, Cahuzac confessed. In 1992, he had asked someone to open a Swiss bank account for him. His secret savings eventually grew to 600,000 euros (more than three-quarters of a million dollars), and he transferred the money to another account in Singapore in 2010. He had never reported either account on his taxes in France. "Devastated by remorse" over his "spiral of lies," Cahuzac announced that he is repatriating the money to France, and he sought "forgiveness for the damage I have caused."

If that sounds bad in the abstract, it is far worse in practice. Hollande had promised his presidency would be different. The keywords of his campaign were normal, fair, just, and clean. He vowed to be an ascetic representative of the people and take on the collusion of the political and business classes. His government would be "irreproachable." Symbols mattered. He shunned black limousines and rode a motor scooter to an interview early in his presidential primary campaign. One of his first actions after taking office was to cut the salaries of all ministers by 30 percent, and he encouraged his cabinet to take the train instead of using cars.

After Cahuzac's admission, Hollande went on television to describe his former minister's "unpardonable mistake." The provocative political magazine Marianne ran a cover summarizing the broader analysis of the French media: "The Ravages of a Disaster for the Republic." Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius put his finger on the pulse of the nation when he noted that people would conclude that politicians "are all rotten."

Even before this debacle, France was itching with impatience. Unemployment is rising toward its highest point since 1998, economic growth is near stagnant (the IMF expects just a 0.4 percent uptick in 2013), and Europe is entering the fourth year of its debt crisis. As Hollande nears the first anniversary of his victory over Sarkozy, there is little sense that the new president will turn things around anytime soon.

No wonder the president's approval ratings, at 30 percent or less in an array of polls, are the lowest of any modern French head of state at such an early point in his term. This should still be the honeymoon, but in light of the Cahuzac bombshell, six people in 10 already want a major government reshuffle.

This credibility-shattering revelation follows a never-ending array of corruption probes under the two previous conservative presidents, Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy, the latter of whom remains under investigation in several cases. The mainstream parties are suffering; 76 percent of the French say they no longer believe in political leaders, and 70 percent of voters think that France's extreme political parties will benefit from this mess.

Meanwhile, the far-right National Front party president, Marine Le Pen, is working hard to make this forecast a reality. Soon after Cahuzac's confession, she called on the government to step down and demanded new elections. The larger (and mainstream) conservative opposition party, the UMP, has called for a major ministerial shake-up and suggested that Prime Minister Ayrault should be replaced.

Hollande's desperate hope is that he can turn this free-fall into a bungee-like bounce. He almost instantly promised major reforms and suggested that people convicted of fraud would be banned from office. On April 10, he announced that all his ministers will soon publish their personal financial information -- and they did on April 15. Hollande also highlighted specific rules that will be put in place to eliminate conflicts of interest for ministers, parliamentarians, and top administrative officials -- and proposed the creation of an independent authority with the teeth to monitor and respond to such corruption.

Challenges to such change are already emerging from elements in the political class, with an array of ministers arguing that being forced to reveal information about their net worth would be a violation of their privacy. While every major country seems to find its own unique ways to corrupt its own political culture, French courts and media have, until fairly recently, often accepted an outsized "private" space for politicians when it comes to their cozy relationships with wealthy patrons.

Even if Hollande succeeds, his new transparency legislation could still weaken his government in the short term, given that journalists are desperately working to confirm an array of rumors and allegations about other ministers. A Swiss television channel reported that Cahuzac also tried to stash 15 million euros in a Swiss account in 2009, though it failed to offer credible evidence. And the leftist French daily Libération wrote a story saying that Mediapart had proof that Foreign Minister Fabius also has unreported money in Switzerland, only to apologize for the article several days later. (Mediapart's top boss quickly denied the initial report in a tweet.) The foreign minister, according to one of his lawyers, "forcefully denies" all such rumors. 

But the news kept getting worse. Two days after Cahuzac admitted his own wrongdoing, France's newspaper of record, Le Monde, revealed that the former treasurer of Hollande's presidential campaign, Jean-Jacques Augier, is part-owner of two companies registered in the Cayman Islands. The former treasurer and businessman, who is also a friend of Hollande, quickly confirmed that he had in fact invested in a company that placed money in the legendary tax haven, but he insisted that there was nothing illegal about it.

Even if all these other allegations of wrongdoing prove to be incorrect, many French people assume that other hypocritical politicians -- whether Socialists or UMP parliamentarians -- have enjoyed ill-gotten gains and avoided their taxes. As an old friend of mine, who refuses to vote for mainstream parties, commented, "How many others are there?"

That's a good question. Another one is this: Where did Cahuzac's secret money actually come from? His lawyer has said that the funds came mostly from plastic surgery clients who paid in cash. He gave that explanation as French journalists first began looking into whether Cahuzac might have garnered kickbacks from the pharmaceutical industry when he was an advisor at the Health Ministry.

While France waits to discover how widespread its morality-and-money problems are, a court will be deciding on the preliminary charge of tax fraud against Cahuzac, who faces a possible fine of up to 375,000 euros and five years in prison, if convicted. On the political front, if Hollande can seize on this scandal to purify his government and transform France's long-standing political culture, it would amount to a remarkable turnaround.

But until then, it seems Hollande's plastic surgeon has not only disfigured his boss -- he has made French politics into a far uglier place.

Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Cramming for That Next Big Test in Democracy

In Burma, members of the pro-democracy opposition are struggling to school themselves in the ins and outs of a liberal society. But so far it's an uphill battle.

RANGOON, Burma — In a musty room on the first floor of the YMCA in downtown Rangoon, potential future leaders of Burma are learning about Facebook. A PowerPoint presentation offers a potted biography of Mark Zuckerberg and explains what it means to "like" something. 

Listening intently are around 60 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma's leading opposition party, who are undergoing a crash course in politics and community mobilization. After half a century of military dictatorship and pervasive poverty, the teachers are starting from scratch: What is "civil society"? What is freedom of speech? What is an email address? 

"I've been a member of the NLD for 20 years but we've never had a chance to learn about real politics or have any training," said Naw Na Chatang, a 50-year-old farmer from the remote northern state of Kachin. Until recently, his life centered around growing lemons and rice on a hillside. Now he's just been elected to the Central Committee of the NLD, a posting confirmed at the first-ever party congress in March. He hopes to run for office in the country's next general election in 2015. 

It's been just two years since President Thein Sein, an ex-general who was part of the military junta that ran Burma for the five decades before that, decided to embark on a cautious program of liberalization. That opening included legalization of the NLD, a movement that bore the brunt of the old dictatorship's policies of oppression. Many leading NLD members served long terms in jail, where they were deprived of even the most basic information about the outside world -- not that their compatriots in the country at large were much better off. (The NLD's legendary leader Aung San Suu Kyi at least had the luxury of a shortwave radio during her long years of house arrest.) "You must remember the concept of democracy is quite new in Burma," says course instructor Min Yannaing Thein. "Most people have no experience of it." He, too, is a former political prisoner. 

The NLD faces a major challenge if it hopes to make the running two years hence. Over 1,300 seats will be up for grabs in the national election, spread across the upper and lower houses of parliament and regional assemblies. Yet the NLD, which has spent so many years struggling to keep itself alive, barely knows where to start. Last April, Aung San Suu Kyi led the party to an overwhelming victory in a limited round of parliamentary by-elections. The NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested. Yet a close advisor to the party privately admits that only a handful of their victorious candidates had the political knowledge and experience to do the job properly. The party faithful need training, and fast. 

The course is correspondingly basic. Spread across five days, it begins with a brief history of Burma and the fifty years of military rule. Then it moves on to descriptions of the country's political institutions, the role of the media, and such boring but vital issues as office administration and budget transparency. 

Many of the participants in this particular course come from remote, far-flung regions of the country that have been ravaged by decades of civil war. All suffer from the dilapidated education system and limited transport or communications infrastructure. The distance and cost of the bus ride make trips to Yangon a rarity. For some, it is the first time they have interacted with senior members of the NLD outside their region. The course participants hail from Chin, Shan, and Karen states, as well as Nagas from the country's far northwestern border with India. 

Their diversity vividly reflects the challenges that face Burma as it attempts to forge a democratic national identity after years of conflict fueled by a centralizing autocracy. One man from Shan state stands up to complain that the NLD lacks enough regional ethnic leaders and says there are too many Burmese representing his area. Another woman disagrees. As an ethnic Kachin living in the same state, she says, she doesn't want the local party dominated by the majority Shan. It comes as little surprise that many of the students are eager to learn more about the practice and theory of federalism from countries that have learned to balance central power and regional identities. Participants also want to hear advice on persuading China (Burma's other powerful neighbor) to help find solutions to the region's conflicts, or on negotiating a permanent peace with the military.

The course is offered by a group called Bayda, a local civil society organization initially set up by activists to monitor elections in 2010. Its conclusion at the time -- that the results were not even remotely free or fair -- was not welcomed by the authorities. The activists were kicked out of their offices four times in the first year. "We could never prove it was pressure from the police, but the landlords would beg us to move on," says Bayda member Min Yannaing Thein. One landlady was reduced to crying on her knees in front of him as she pleaded with him to leave, he says. 

Now allowed to work freely, Bayda organizers are planning to establish small libraries around the country that can act as hubs for regional courses as well as giving locals a place to use the Internet, read previously-censored history books, and hold political meetings. Already, 38 of these community centers have been set up in places as far-flung as Muse on the Chinese border and Dawei on the Bay of Bengal. Bayda hopes to have 100 in operation by the end of the year. 

A young team of workers is visiting these centers to deliver training for those who can't afford the trip to Yangon. Han Soe Tun, 31, has been with Bayda for only a couple of months, but has already traveled to six townships, staying in monasteries to keep down costs. "In rural areas, most people are still afraid to come to political training but there are always some activists who are hungry to learn." The police are curious but have so far left them alone. "We always ask the police to join in. They haven't taken up the offer yet." 

The plan is to use this network to find four or five promising individuals in each of Myanmar's 330 townships, who will then be brought to Yangon for an intensive, two-month course to prepare them to become election candidates. 

Meanwhile, at NLD headquarters in another part of town, another young activist has just set up the party's first research unit, which he hopes will provide the basis for party policy in the future. The founder of the department, Nay Chi Win, is also its oldest member at the ripe age of 32. Currently, it is no more than a small group of volunteers working out of Nay Chi's apartment and a small office in the ramshackle NLD building, poring over as much research material as they can find on transitional justice and the experiences of other fledgling democracies. 

They have built a loose network of around 30 other young activists from around the country who are collecting data on local conditions -- particularly agricultural and health needs, as well as the performance of government institutions. Nay Chi enlisted his friend, Benedict Rogers, a well-known activist from the U.K. who has written several books on Burma, to offer short training courses for his team and enlist other international teachers, including Australian economist Sean Turnell and former ambassadors from Britain and the Czech Republic. "I asked Ben to find people who want to help Burma and won't just come and ask for Aung San Suu Kyi's autograph," said Nay Chi. "I told him not to ask what we need -- we don't know. We just need help." 

The transition to open politics has been rough on the NLD in recent months, exposing it to the sort of criticism and infighting that it never faced during its years as the moral conscience of the country. Last month brought the unprecedented sight of huge protests directed against party leader Aung San Suu Kyi after a commission that she chaired refused to condemn a controversial copper mine project on the Chindwin River. 

Meanwhile, within the party, she faces complaints of being aloof and inaccessible. That is partly the result of her busy schedule and natural superiority -- she remains by far the most capable and charismatic politician in the country -- but several insiders also speak darkly about the small cabal of advisors that surround her, jealously guarding access and controlling the information she receives. They blame this group for some of her recent missteps, particularly her silence over the persecution of Rohingya Muslims and the ongoing war in Kachin state. "If she does not change this way of operating, it will be the death of her career and of the party," says one person with direct links to the highest levels of the NLD. Like others who raised these concerns, he spoke on condition of anonymity. 

But the emergence of new training and research programs -- thanks largely to the efforts of a new generation of energetic young activists, rather than party veterans -- offers hope of building a party that is more than simply a platform for its iconic leader. The scale of the challenge is daunting. Just two years ago, most of the NLD were underground, in prison or in exile. Now they have just two more to turn themselves into a government. 

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images