PARIS — With the French government reeling over a minister’s tax-dodging scandal, President Francois Hollande proposed a law on Wednesday that would force ministers, legislators and other senior officials to declare their assets publicly and submit to auditing by a “totally independent” authority before and after taking office.
Hollande’s legislation, which would mark a significant departure in French politics, was seen as an attempt to calm the political tempest that has arisen over an admission last week by his former budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, that he had a secret bank account in Switzerland. Cahuzac, who was in charge of tax collection, had denied for months that he had such an account, including during a solemn appearance before the National Assembly.
Hollande said in a televised statement that he was “wounded, bruised” by Cahuzac’s lies and that, in response, he wanted to instill a new level of “morality” in French political life. In addition to making officials’ assets public, he said, the government would create a special prosecutor post. The prosecutor would pursue financial crimes and intensify the battle to target “fiscal paradise” countries whose bank-secrecy laws encourage tax evasion.
With Hollande’s Socialist Party enjoying a comfortable majority in the National Assembly and in the Senate, the government’s proposal is likely to pass. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the legislation would be sent to Parliament this month for passage before the summer vacation.
Hollande has been severely undercut by Cahuzac’s belated admission, with conservative opposition figures questioning the president’s integrity or, at the least, his authority and acumen. The uproar has added to the doubts about his leadership, as Hollande confronts growing unemployment and what the conservatives criticize as disorganization within his government.
The announcement Wednesday did nothing to deflect the doubts. Former interior minister Brice Hortefeux, a close ally of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, called the idea of a public declaration of assets “a form of voyeurism” and suggested that Hollande was trying in vain to give an impression that he was firmly in charge.
“Instead, all this gives the impression of panic at the summit of the government,” he said.
“Resign, resign,” conservative lawmakers shouted later in the day as Ayrault defended Hollande’s leadership in the National Assembly.
Marine Le Pen, who heads the far-right National Front, mocked Hollande’s pledges to pursue economic crimes and tax evasion, noting that French and other European officials have announced repeatedly that tax havens such as Switzerland and Luxembourg will no longer be tolerated. At the same time, the Mediapart Web site posted a report recalling that her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, once had a Swiss account.
Under current rules, French lawmakers must report their assets to the parliamentary leadership. But the reports remain secret, and there is no mechanism for checking whether they are accurate or complete. Ministers named by the president, however, are not subjected to pre-nomination investigations or legislative hearings.
In Cahuzac’s case, rumors had floated around Paris for some time that his finances were dodgy, particularly because he was known to be wealthy and involved in a bitter divorce. But when Mediapart reported in December that he had a Swiss account, the former plastic surgeon vehemently denied it, in private as well as in public, and sued the site for calumny.
After an investigating magistrate opened an inquiry last month, Cahuzac was forced to resign. The magistrate, relying on judicial-cooperation agreements with Swiss authorities, uncovered information that led to the admission two weeks ago, with Cahuzac explaining that he had been caught up in “a spiral of lies.”
He has since been charged with covering up tax evasion and been expelled from the Socialist Party.