PARIS — Vincent Uher, a seconded expert from France working for the legal service of the European Commission, has a side gig that would make most EU officials’ jaws drop.
According to documents seen by POLITICO, Uher has since October headed the association that funds the political party backing Eric Zemmour, the far-right presidential candidate campaigning to curtail the powers of the EU and restrict migration into the bloc.
That’s a highly unorthodox dual role for a man who has been a “seconded national expert” at the European Commission’s legal service since September 2020. His job in Brussels allows him to provide legal expertise to the institution on budgets, customs and taxation issues, as well as representing it in the Court of Justice of the European Union. The legal service is a powerful department and reports directly to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
It’s unclear whether Uher has notified any potential conflict of interest related to his political activities to the Commission and obtained permission to pursue them, which he must under the institution’s rules.
Zemmour, a TV pundit-turned politician who was twice convicted for inciting hatred, is leading a campaign promising to completely halt immigration. The EU is one of his chief bugbears and he promises to suspend France’s participation in the Schengen free travel zone but also ignore the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and and Court of Justice on matters such as immigration and government subsidies. He is a fierce critic of the Commission and has called for its powers to be “limited to the maximum.”
According to European Commission rules and staff regulations, national experts are subject to the same rules as EU officials when it comes to external activities. If they wish to “engage in an outside activity, whether paid or unpaid, or to carry out an assignment outside the communities,” they “shall first obtain the permission of the Appointing Authority,” the Commission. “Before delivering the authorization, the competent service will consult with the employer of the national detached expert,” the EU rules on seconded experts stipulate.
Permission to pursue external activities can be refused if these activities are incompatible with the “interests of the institution,” which raises the question as to whether there is a conflict of interest in Uher’s external activities. EU rules also state that officials may engage in activities derived from “political convictions” without asking for “prior authorization” in cases where there is no link to the European Union and “the impartiality and objectivity of the staff member… are not compromised, or may not appear to be compromised… because of interests which diverge from those of the institution.”
The Commission declined to confirm whether Uher had reported his political activities to the Commission or to his employer, the French government. On being contacted by POLITICO by telephone and email, Uher also declined to answer questions.
The French government — as represented by its mission in Brussels — said that it was unaware of the case, but noted that seconded officials were bound by strict rules of impartiality. The economy ministry, from which Uher was seconded, referred all questions to the French permanent representation in Brussels.
Over the past year, Uher has formally represented the European Commission in two cases before the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU)— one involving value added tax applicable to admissions to a theme park and another regarding a tax dispute with Belgium.
Zemmour upset predictions ahead of the presidential election next April, when he suddenly emerged as a rival to Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party. He has pushed a radical stance on immigration and French identity that has dominated the public debate in recent months. Zemmour is currently polling at 13 percent according to POLITICO’s poll of polls, behind incumbent Emmanuel Macron, conservative Valérie Pécresse and Le Pen.
Uher’s euroskeptic side-gig
Uher became president of a French “Funding association of The Friends of Eric Zemmour party” in October 2021, according to documents outlining the association’s mission obtained by POLITICO. Uher’s role was first mentioned by the weekly Le Point in November, but he has kept a very low profile and hasn’t attended any public facing campaign event.
The association’s documents were updated in December, although it remains unclear what changes were made.
The organization receives donations and contributions from party members for Zemmour’s newly-created political party “Reconquête,” or Reconquest according to several members of Zemmour’s campaign team.
According to Gilbert Payet, Zemmour’s legal and technical advisor, Uher’s role is mostly honorary as he is not in charge of approving expenses linked to campaigning for the presidential election. Zemmour has a separate funding association, called the “Funding Association of Eric Zemmour’s presidential campaign”, specifically for the presidential election.
In a written answer to POLITICO, France’s political party watchdog the CNCCFP said that “it is preferable that a third person [not at the head of the party] is in charge of receiving funds for the party in order to avoid accounting errors.”
According to several party managers with experience of campaign funding, the president of the party funding association is in charge of checking the legality of funds received by the party and transferring these funds to the party. Once received, these funds can be used to finance party activities or the campaigns of candidates.
“The party funding association works like a bank for the campaign,” says one French party manager who does not work with Zemmour, “and it will also finance party activities such as the campaigning for the parliamentary elections.”
It is not clear whether Uher also contributes to Zemmour’s campaign on policy issues, which raises questions as to whether he uses his experience at the EU commission to inform a eurosceptic campaign. One Zemmour adviser says he writes up reports on legal matters for the campaign, while another denied he had any input on policy.
Asked by POLITICO to explain his double function as Commission expert and de facto treasurer of Zemmour’s euroskeptic party, Uher said he would “refrain from any comment given the confidentiality rules I have towards the Commission and the French government.”
Member countries pay their seconded experts a salary, but many of those who work for the commission in Brussels get housing fees from the Commission on top of their salary.
From Le Pen to Zemmour
Uher is no stranger to far-right politics.
In 2016, Uher joined a group of experts linked to the far-right National Front called “Les Horaces.” These anonymous members of the French administration act as advisers to Le Pen on policy issues.
According to André Rougé, an adviser to Le Pen, Uher took part in expert panels and contributed reports on fiscal issues to the National Rally but was not involved in the life of the party.
A former student of France’s prestigious École Nationale d’Administration — the country’s breeding ground for top officials — Uher is a high-flyer who has worked for the French ministry of finance and France’s national court of asylum rights, according to the France’s official government publication the Journal Officiel.
Uher left the National Rally experts’ group in 2017, according to Rougé.
“He left of his own accord, he wasn’t happy,” says Rougé. “Maybe we weren’t focused enough on French identity for him.”
“He was very immature, too big for his boots and he was already seeing himself as the Elysée’s general secretary,” he said.
Zemmour promises a radical approach to the European Union institutions if he is elected president. His plans include reintroducing border controls, suspending Schengen border-free rules for two years and, according to a member of his team in charge of European topics, ignoring rulings from the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union on issues such as immigration and government subsidies.
His policies would put him on a collision course with the EU commission, which he regularly slams during debates. Speaking in Nîmes in October, Zemmour said France should “limit the powers of the Commission to the maximum.”
“We have consumed Europe’s pipe dreams,” he told an audience of several hundred. “We have given a great number of sovereignties to the Commission and it has done nothing with them.”
Lili Bayer and Simon Van Dorpe contributed reporting.