Bicentennials are usually pretty efficient generators of interest and excitement, but it takes a particularly profound attachment to national institutions to get worked up over the 200th birthday of a state accounting office. So you’ve got to hand it to the French—not only are they pulling out all the stops to celebrate the bicentennial of their illustrious Cour des Comptes, they’re also pointing out why the rest of the world should get in on the fête as well.
Admittedly, there aren’t many state institutions founded by Napoleon I that are still functioning today, and fewer still whose origins date back to the 13th century. Moreover, the Cour des Comptes also enjoys a certain star quality, given that a number of famous people have served as magistrates since it was first convened under the presidency of François Barbé-Marbois (himself renowned for having negotiated France’s sale of Louisiana to the U.S. three years earlier).
Still, this anniversary comes at a time when France is suffering from a touch of bicentennial fatigue. “French history took a huge turn toward the end of the 18th century,” explains Philippe Séguin, who was appointed First President of the court in 2004. “As a result, a large number of institutions were founded, and in recent years, all have been turning 200. First there was the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, followed by the bicentennials of the various institutions that arose from it: the Civil Code, the Conseil d’Etat and so on. Now, it’s our turn.”
For the past two centuries, the Cour des Comptes has been the taxpayers’ watchdog, making sure that every centime of public funds is duly accounted for and appropriately spent. Not that this was Napoleon’s primary concern when he created it. “Money is power, and Napoleon believed that his own power would be enhanced by gaining full control over the spending of public funds,” says Séguin. To gain that control, the Emperor revamped the Chambre des Comptes, whose origins went back to medieval times.
The first known reference to the Chambre is in a 1256 document; it is described as an accounting commission attached to the curia Regis (king’s court). By 1303 it had become a full-fledged institution housed in the royal palace on Paris’s Ile de la Cité. Its role was to collect taxes generated throughout the kingdom and to analyze how effectively those monies were later spent. By the dawn of the Revolution, however, the Chambre des Comptes had lost much of its taxation power to its 12 regional branches and had fallen a decade behind in its audits of state spending. Not surprisingly, such laxity resulted in great waste and siphoned funds.
In 1807—18 years after France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen included the liberty to “demand accounting of all public money from (one’s) administration”—Napoleon instituted the new Cour des Comptes.
No longer a tax-gathering body, its role was now simply to audit spending and to report solely to the Emperor, pointing out anything that seemed amiss.
Ever since, the Cour des Comptes has been at the nexus of power and money, ferreting out the kind of wrongdoing that can lead to major scandals. Sexy stuff, right? In truth, the Court’s work has always been more C-SPAN than “Dallas,” but it does occasionally make the evening news.
In 1996, just five years after it was allowed—but not required—to audit public charities, the Court’s inspection of the Association for Cancer Research found that scarcely a quarter of the charity’s $60 million in annual funding had gone to cancer research. Much of the remainder had been embezzled by several of the organization’s leaders. The association’s long-time chairman and a score of other defendants were eventually convicted, and the public was so disgusted that donations to all French charities plunged. In an effort to restore donor confidence, a law was passed mandating that the Cour des Comptes begin the systematic examination of all charity accounts. Its last major inspection in that area involved organizations that came to the aid of the 2005 tsunami victims (all passed muster).
In addition to keeping an eye on charities, the Cour des Comptes is also responsible for auditing international organizations such as Interpol, the Organization of Francophone Nations and UNESCO. This past March, a top U.S. official at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters announced his resignation following a Cour des Comptes audit: Its findings indicated that he’d broken organization rules by repeatedly granting contracts to an American consulting firm without competitive bidding.
Unlike many of its international peers, the Cour de Comptes is independent of both the legislative and executive branches. “Obviously, that independence has its limits,” notes Séguin, himself a former legislator and government minister. “The president names magistrates to the court, and the parliament votes its budget. But beyond that, it’s entirely up to us which areas and accounts we audit, and we write our judgments as we see fit. What’s more, anyone who disagrees with our rulings can’t retaliate because we’re all named for life. That gives our work even more credibility, because we are seen as being independent and objective.”
The Court’s reputation for fairness is enhanced by the fact that it is open to input—and challenges—from the officials, organizations or businesses being examined. But once made, the Court’s rulings may not be appealed (although the final decision as to whether fines, criminal cases or other punitive actions are merited lies exclusively with France’s prosecutor general).
Of course, only a small minority of the 700 major audits and reports conducted by the Court each year result in such actions. Carrying out these painstaking investigations requires a staff of about 600, roughly 180 of whom are examining magistrates (the rest support their efforts through various legal and administrative tasks). Lower-level staffers are recruited from France’s prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration, while other posts are filled by civil servants who have already logged in a minimum of 10 years of service.
Though all may take extended (or even indefinite) leaves of absence to accept other jobs in the public or private sector, they never lose their status as Cour des Comptes officials, effectively thwarting any efforts to remove people for political reasons. “Our civil service system is a bit like a religion,” says Séguin. “We join it the way a pastor or priest joins the Church—for life.”
In addition to Séguin, other famous members of the Cour des Comptes “clergy” include former president Jacques Chirac, Socialist Party leader François Hollande, former Defense and Interior minister Pierre Joxe, former Peugeot CEO Jacques Calvet and President Georges Pompidou’s Foreign Affairs Minister Michel Jobert—whose contentious ways earned him the nickname “Mister No” from Henry Kissinger.
So how is this illustrious body celebrating its 200th anniversary? On January 22, it kicked off a yearlong calendar of events, inaugurating an impressive ceiling fresco by artist Bernar Venet at the 106-year-old Palais Cambon. Fittingly, President Chirac and other dignitaries attended the celebration. The Court has also assembled bound copies of all writings authored by its members for the first time ever and is hosting exhibits, colloquiums and other special events throughout the year. The festivities will finally wind up on November 5 with a re-enactment of the Cour des Comptes 1807 inaugural session.
Séguin points out that these commemorations are designed to honor not only the Court’s special place in French history but also the many nations tied to it. Indeed, the Cour des Comptes was among the first of the independent audit bodies that virtually every nation and organization of states now relies on: the United States’ General Accounting Office, Britain’s National Audit Office, the European Union’s Cour des Comptes…. All are members of the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions, and while their methods may differ, all were inspired by France’s Cour des Comptes.