PARIS – France’s Industry Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher may have breached legislation on political transparency over a relationship with her chief of staff that has raised questions about her candidacy in upcoming regional elections.
POLITICO’s Playbook Paris has established that she used the residence of her Chief of Staff Nicolas Bays in the town of Lens as the official address for her candidacy in the northern Hauts-de-France regional election in June, raising questions about the legitimacy of her connection to the region and whether she can run for office there.
The regional race is a key battleground between French President Emmanuel Macron and Xavier Bertrand, one of his main challengers on the right ahead of the presidential election next year. A Bertrand defeat would help secure Macron’s national prospects.
Pannier-Runacher had no apparent previous connection to the area and had never stood for office there. Under French election rules, candidates must prove residency or that they are registered as taxpayers in the region where they are running. If she is found to have broken the rules she could endanger the full slate of candidates in the region for Macron’s La République en Marche party.
Pannier-Runnacher’s office on Wednesday May 25 said only that she had “part of her personal life” in the region. When POLITICO on Thursday May 26 asked the office about her relationship, a spokesperson didn’t say anything about the possibility of Bays resigning.
But the following morning, in a message to colleagues on Telegram seen by POLITICO, Bays announced his resignation from her team “for personal reasons.” And when a notice of his resignation appeared in France’s Official Journal on Saturday, the date of the resignation was stated as May 9, the week before the LREM list of candidates was registered with the authorities and hence when Pannier-Runacher cited Bays’ address as her place of residence.
The discrepancy in dates raises questions about the reason for Bays’ resignation, which came after POLITICO asked about his relationship with the minister, as well as the reason for the resignation being written down as occurring on May 9. An earlier date supports the idea that Pannier-Runacher and he were no longer colleagues by the time she used his home address to justify her connection to the region.
Under legislation introduced by Macron’s government in 2017 to improve transparency in politics, ministers are banned from employing their spouse or partner as a member of staff. Article 11 of the 2017 law for confidence in political life “prohibits a member of the government to count among the members of his cabinet his/her spouse (…) or partner.” If left undisclosed, the relationship between Pannier-Runacher and her chief of staff would have fallen foul of the rules on conflicts of interest.
“If a minister has a relationship with a member of staff, the work relationship must come to an end,” said Sébastien Avallone, a lawyer and university teacher from Montpellier in Southern France. Breaking the law risks a maximum jail sentence of three years and a €45,000 fine.
It’s only last Sunday, only after Bays had announced his resignation to the team, that the minister’s office and her chief of staff confirmed to POLITICO’s Playbook Paris that the two of them “have taken the decision to live together.”
Pannier-Runacher’s office says the minister sought legal advice about the relationship when Bays resigned. “Agnès Pannier-Runacher requested, for obvious reasons, the legal recommendations of the government’s general secretariat,” said a spokesperson. “Consequently Nicolas Bays put an end to his contract when their cohabitation started on May 9.”
Both Pannier-Runacher and Bays deny any wrongdoing.
However, three officials working at the Economy ministry and the French parliament say the relationship in fact started in late 2020. There are also indications Bays was still working for Pannier-Runacher after the official date of his resignation on May 9. Last week Pannier-Runacher posted a picture with “her team” that included Bays. He also appeared last week in video footage of the minister on an official visit in a town west of Paris.
Speaking on French radio RTL on Monday, Pannier-Runacher said that she had “acted in complete accordance with the law” and that Bays had continued his work on a voluntary basis after his contract ended.
“My partner no longer works for me,” she said, “let me remind you that he works 80 hours a week, so he has worked  hours for free.”
Bays, a former Socialist MP and longtime Macron supporter, joined her staff in September 2020 and was promoted to chief of staff in December 2020. Pannier-Runacher says she did not know him before he joined her staff.
Local election bid under threat
The questions over Pannier-Runacher’s bid has focused more media attention on a regional race that is already very much in the political spotlight.
The industry minister is running on a list of candidates that includes the Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti against several parties including one list headed by Xavier Bertrand, a rightwing presidential hopeful.
Pannier-Runacher’s proof of residence in the Hauts-de-France may fall short of electoral rules in France on the basis that she has not had a connection to the region for long enough. In 2016, France’s supreme court the Conseil d’Etat annulled the election of the academic Dominique Reynié in the 2015 elections in the Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées, on the basis that his life in the region was “recent and rather limited.” At the time, Reynié was renting a room in his mother’s home.
According to the lawyer Avallone, the LREM list of candidates could be jeopardized if the candidacy of Pannier-Runacher was later rejected and a judge ruled that her bid had influenced the election. This was not however the case for Reynié. His election was annulled, but his fellow candidates were maintained in office.
The election committee of the town of Lens has not yet met to rule on the validity of the list of candidates.
Pannier-Runacher has accused Bertrand of orchestrating attacks on her personal life to score political points. In a message to follow candidates in the Hauts-de-France obtained by POLITICO, Pannier-Runacher wrote that “these are practices of a bygone era. […] Bertrand’s politics are old-fashioned. It’s intimidation, below-the-belt blows. It’s undignified behavior from someone who wants to become president of the Republic.”