PARIS — The wealthiest member of France’s Socialist government, French people learned Monday, is Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who inherited a $7.8 million fortune from his family’s trade in art and antiques. But Michele Delaunay, minister for the aged, also disclosed a comfortable stash: $7 million, mostly in inherited real estate along the Atlantic coast.
Rich ministers and poor — all 38 members of President Francois Hollande’s government — were required on Monday to declare their assets publicly for the first time. The disclosures marked a historic departure for French politics, which has a long, notorious tradition of under-the-table campaign financing and polite silence on personal wealth often acquired on modest government salaries.
“This is a revolution for France,” said Maurice Szafran, editor of the weekly magazine Marianne.
The tradition of winking at financial sleight of hand has become increasingly unacceptable in the public eye over the past two decades, and prosecutors have pursued a number of officials for misuse of public funds.
Former president Jacques Chirac, for instance, was tried for paying fictional employees when he was mayor of Paris, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy is charged with taking advantage of a rich heiress to raise campaign funds.
Against that background, the revelations Monday, although they would be commonplace in the United States and many European countries, were breathlessly detailed on France’s all-news television stations and online news organizations as soon as they were posted, duly audited, on the government’s Web site.
Hollande’s order marked the first step in a “morality in politics” program decreed after former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac admitted two weeks ago that he had a secret Swiss bank account, despite months of lies to the contrary. Cahuzac, a wealthy plastic surgeon specializing in hair implants, resigned and was expelled from the Socialist Party.
Hollande, declaring himself jolted and hurt, said he had been lied to along with the rest of the country. The scandal nevertheless washed over his government, which already was under attack for its handling of a grave economic slowdown.
Seeking to deflect the criticism, Hollande decreed not only that his ministers would have to detail their holdings but that he would propose a law this month requiring members of Parliament and other high officials to do the same.
At the same time, he said, the government would intensify the fight against tax evasion and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate financial crimes.
Previous rules required members of Parliament to report their assets to a parliamentary authority that, in principle, was to monitor any enrichment that occurred while they were in office.
But the findings were never revealed, and Parliament members acknowledged that the system was largely inoperative. Ministers, picked by the president, filed similar reports on taking office, also confidential.
Despite opinion polls indicating that the public is eager for more transparency in political finances, conservative opposition leaders denounced Hollande’s steps as a diversion from a mishandled economic policy and questions about who knew of Cahuzac’s lies.
It is fine to tighten controls on official finances, they said, but revealing assets to the public can only satisfy morbid curiosity.
“Please, please, let’s avoid this voyeurism,” said Jean-Francois Cope, who heads the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the main conservative party.
Former prime minister Alain Juppe, another UMP stalwart, revealed his assets — a little over $3 million, chiefly in real estate — but decried the widespread interest in Hollande’s measures as “unhealthy excitement.”
“I am not doing this out of virtue but because I am giving in to political and media pressure,” he wrote on his blog.
Government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said there was nothing contradictory in seeing a Socialist government embrace wealthy ministers.
The problem with Cahuzac, she noted, was not that he was wealthy but that he had an illegal Swiss bank account to evade the very tax laws he was in charge of enforcing.
Nevertheless, a number of Socialist members of Parliament expressed doubt about the wisdom of publicly disclosing their assets. One of them was Claude Bartolone, who as president of the National Assembly is one of Hollande’s senior appointees.