A French Cabinet minister has resigned in disgrace after he was caught hiring unemployed actors, students and day laborers to pose as an audience for senior Socialist Party speakers at a sparsely attended conference here.
The rent-a-crowd scheme unraveled Tuesday when a news cameraman from one of the French networks recognized a television comic actor in the audience of the somber colloquium sponsored by an intellectual futurist organization, Dialogues 2000.
Other journalists became suspicious when members of the crowd, mistaking the reporters for conference organizers, asked directions for collecting the 343 francs ($60) they had been promised for attending speeches by the Speaker of the National Assembly, Laurent Fabius, and Socialist Party First Secretary Pierre Mauroy, among others.
By Thursday, the affair had expanded into a national embarrassment for the ruling Socialists, who were ridiculed in cartoons and articles on the front pages of all the daily newspapers.
"A Big Hand for the Politicians," mocked the headline in the Communist daily, L'Humanite. For the Socialists, who have shown a steady decline in public opinion polls recently, it was the latest in a series of setbacks that began in March when party leaders feuded petulantly at a political convention over who would be the next candidate for president in 1995 when incumbent Francois Mitterrand retires.
At first, Minister of Tourism Olivier Stirn, organizer of the ill-fated Dialogues 2000 colloquium, attempted to defend himself by arguing that paying the audience helped to alleviate unemployment. The several hundred actors, students and day laborers applauded enthusiastically during the three hours of speeches Tuesday afternoon.
"It was a tiny mistake with no bad intentions," Stirn blurted under questioning from a television reporter. He said the stand-ins were hired after only a few legitimate invitees attended earlier sessions.
Late Wednesday night, however, Stirn was forced to resign under mounting pressure from members of his own political party and members of the opposition gleeful over the latest pratfall for the ruling Socialists.
Invited to speak after Fabius and Mauroy late Tuesday afternoon, Minister of Defense Jean-Pierre Chevenement had watched in astonishment as the meeting hall emptied as he approached the speaker's platform. The audience had been hired for only three hours and that time was up just as it was his turn to speak.
Informed of the ruse, Chevenement could barely contain his rage. He was among the first to call for Stirn's head.
The French political system forgives many sins that would be considered fatal in the United States and other Western democracies. Cabinet ministers are seldom forced to resign. The last was in 1985 when the late Defense Minister Charles Hernu resigned for his role in the bombing of the ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand. Greenpeace, the environmental organization, employed the vessel in its fight against French nuclear tests in the Pacific.
The one sin that apparently finds no forgiveness in the French political scene is provoking public embarrassment. There is a common expression in French that "ridicule never killed anyone." But from infancy, French children are chided by their parents to avoid being ridicule.
Being ridiculous apparently proved fatal to Stirn's political career.
"The affair is basically just embarrassing," an adviser to Prime Minister Michel Rocard told a reporter from the Paris newspaper, Liberation. "But it came at a bad time. There are times when it is criminal to look ridiculous."