PARIS (AP) — For a French president who came to power on a promise of “irreproachability,” naming a lying tax-dodger to be his chief tax collector was probably not the best move.
Now Francois Hollande is a president on the ropes, reeling from a potentially knockout blow delivered by his ex-budget minister, a man who admitted this week that he had hidden hundreds of thousands of euros from the tax man for decades and lied about it.
Those lies from Jerome Cahuzac came both in front of the National Assembly and to Hollande’s own face.
Worst of all for Hollande was that he billed his presidency as a return to morality and simplicity after what his Socialist Party dubbed the “bling-bling” years of his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. Now Hollande has handed Sarkozy’s opposition UMP party the club it needs to bash him and his Socialist government for the rest of his presidency.
After months of denials, Cahuzac wrote on his blog Tuesday that he had told investigating judges he had a foreign bank account for 20 years. Cahuzac, who had long criticized the use of overseas tax havens, quit the government last month as the scandal swelled.
The opposition UMP party has already been mercilessly haranguing Hollande and the Socialists for economic mismanagement after the government admitted it would not be able to trim the deficit as far as it had pledged to its European partners.
Cutting that deficit by cracking down on tax-dodgers was part of Cahuzac’s job as Hollande’s budget minister.
That makes his surprise admission of a secret Swiss bank account — after months of denying its existence — embarrassing not only for him but for Hollande’s entire cabinet. Many government ministers had taken to the airwaves to swear to Cahuzac’s probity and trustworthiness after the muckraking website Mediapart first reported his secret in December.
Hollande made an unusual taped TV appearance Wednesday to respond to the crisis. Shaking his fist in a bid to appear forceful, Hollande called Cahuzac’s actions “unpardonable” and “an outrage to the Republic.”
At the same time, Hollande tried to deflect the scandal with a pointed reference to “the failure of one man.” He also announced a string of reforms — including banning convicted fraudsters from holding public office and requiring all government ministers and members of parliament to publish details of their personal finances.
It’s not clear yet if that will help. Hollande is among the least popular presidents in modern French history after less than one year in office. Recent opinion polls give him an approval rating of barely more than 30 percent.
The disgust felt by French voters was expressed by Philippe Martin, a passer-by walking Wednesday near the Champs Elysees in Paris.
“He dared to look into someone else’s eyes and say he didn’t have a bank account in Switzerland, that’s a disgrace,” Martin said.
French voters have grown used to seeing ministers and other top public officials nabbed in various corruption probes.
“This isn’t the first time it’s happening,” said Anne Sedonin, another passer-by in Paris. “It’s sad, sad.”
The executive editor of Mediapart, the online investigative journalism site, said Cahuzac’s admission will set off a political “earthquake.”
Edwy Plenel said what makes the Cahuzac scandal so threatening to the country’s democracy “is the attitude of the whole political class,” which he said had rallied behind Cahuzac.
“His admission reveals to the French citizens the inadequacy of the majority of that world,” Plenel said.
Plenel and others fear this latest scandal will benefit extremist parties such as Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front or the far-left New Anti-Capitalist Party. Both pounced on the chance to score political points, with Le Pen calling for new elections and the NPA raising doubts that others in the government were unaware of Cahuzac’s lies.
The opposition UMP party asked the inevitable “who knew what, when?”
“Frankly I find it hard to believe that they only learned the truth 48 hours ago, or else I guess we’re being led by a big simpleton,” UMP Vice President Thierry Mariani said.
Authorities filed preliminary charges against Cahuzac, a former plastic surgeon-turned-politician, for alleged money laundering. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a 375,000 euro ($481,500) fine.
The Geneva cantonal prosecutor confirmed later Wednesday that Cahuzac had accounts in Swiss banks UBS and Reyl & Cie, and that Swiss authorities are handing over information about those accounts to Paris prosecutors.
French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, meanwhile, issued a statement trying to explain how the government’s digging into the accusations against Cahuzac turned up nothing. He insisted there was no intentional cover-up.
On Cahuzac’s blog, http://www.jerome-cahuzac.com, the former minister wrote that he had taken steps to repatriate 600,000 euros’ worth of holdings.
Cahuzac also expressed regret to Hollande, his colleagues, supporters and all French citizens, asking for “forgiveness for the damage I have caused.”
Masha Macpherson contributed to this story.