Limited progress on lobbying transparency in France


Starting this week, a bit more light will be shed on the influence-peddlers who lobby the French National Assembly. Thanks to a new set of rules, lobbyists registered with the National Assembly will be required to disclose more information about their lobbying activity, including their objectives, clients, and lobbying budget.

More robust disclosure regarding the activities of lobbyists is a welcome development, and one that has been fought for by groups like Transparency International and Regards Citoyens. However, the National Assembly’s lobbyist registry is still a voluntary system where incentives — such as access to some parliamentary space — drive lobbyists to register, not statutory requirement.

Palais Bourbon, the seat of the French National Assembly

For a lobbyist registry to be effective and meaningful, it must be mandatory. Any individual defined as a lobbyist should be required to register with the government, or face commensurate penalties.

When France first started a lobbying registry in 2009, it was a voluntary and discretionary system that provided registrants with a hall pass, an official document that gave them access to parliamentary space. This incentive, though, wasn’t attractive enough to get lobbyists to register. According to our friends at Regards Citoyens, only 150 lobbyists registered with the National Assembly. In a 2011 joint study, Regards Citoyens and Transparency International revealed that over 9,000 organizations were said to have lobbied MPs in the previous years, proving that the registry captured only a fraction of all lobbying activity. For a registry to be meaningful, it must provide a clear picture of all lobbying efforts, something a voluntary system will never achieve.

In some countries with lobbying registries, such as the US and Canada, all active lobbyists must register with the appropriate government entity and report regularly on their activities. In other countries or the EU, registering is optional, and incentives such as parliamentary hall passes are put in place to encourage lobbyists to register. Voluntary systems are never successful, as they provide at best an incomplete picture of lobbying activity.

The flaws in the new system go beyond the fact that it’s voluntary. There will be no data verification process to ensure that the registry contains accurate information. An effective lobbyist registry would be randomly audited by an independent agency to ensure data quality. On top of this, there is no independent entity to manage the registry and oversee the registration process.

Another major problem identified by Transparency International is that the National Assembly has been unable to clearly define the term lobbying, which leaves individuals unsure of their status under the regulations. This is a very common problem with lobbying transparency efforts. A definition of lobbying must be sufficiently broad so that it captures most activity but not overly broad so as to confuse individuals of their status. This is a tricky problem, and one that will have to be worked out if lobbying transparency is to become a reality.

The National Assembly, though, is not the only government body targeted by lobbyists. They also target the Senate and the executive branch. The Senate maintains its own registration system with different requirements and benefits. The executive branch, on the other hand, does not maintain a lobbyist registry. France’s executive branch is afforded more legislative power than the parliament, making it a primary target of lobbying; but, there is no public record of these activities. This is a huge problem. Multiple registries make it difficult for lobbyists to register and decrease the likelihood of them doing so (a problem that could also be solved if registration was mandatory). And the lack of an executive branch registry significantly reduces the public’s ability to get a holistic picture of lobbying efforts. As was proposed by Regards Citoyens during the recent parliamentary debates on political transparency, a meaningful lobbying disclosure system should cover both of the houses of parliament and senior executive branch officials, and be enforced by penalizing those who refuse to register.

The National Assembly has taken a few steps in the right direction with the implementation of these news rules. Much more must be done, though, before the public has a sufficient picture of the lobbying efforts that are shaping their government.

Here at Sunlight, we have long been pushing for greater lobbying transparency in the United States. Currently, we`re mapping the landscape of international lobbying regulations and will be increasingly active on working with advocates in other countries. As part of this work, we will continue to engage in joint advocacy on lobbying transparency such as in France the UK, and hope to develop a set of internationally applicable guidelines on effective lobbying disclosure in the coming weeks.

 Thanks to Regards Citoyens for their continued work on this issue and their assistance on this post. 

Image via Flickr user Chris Waits.