French ministers face first-ever assets declaration

PARIS- French ministers will for the first time on Monday disclose their assets, in a move President Francois Hollande’s Socialist government hopes will restore public confidence after a tax fraud scandal.

There was apprehension, however, that the move could backfire by revealing significant riches to a country struggling with a lengthy economic downturn.

With growth stagnant, unemployment on the rise and the government slashing spending, senior officials admit the move is risky, but hope it will help turn the page on the scandal over a secret Swiss bank account that belonged to ex-budget minister Jerome Cahuzac.

The assets of 37 ministers and of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will be published at 1500 GMT Monday on the government website. The move has sparked widespread debate in France, where personal finances are rarely discussed and – unlike in the United States where politicians often publish their tax returns the wealth of public officials has long been considered private.

Lawmakers on both the right and left have decried the move and the government expects a tough battle when it attempts to have the disclosure rule extended to parliamentarians in a law to be presented on April 24. Former prime minister Francois Fillon of the right-wing UMP denounced the measure on Sunday as “useless” and aimed at “discrediting politicians.”.

“This would have in no way prevented the Cahuzac scandal,” which saw the former minister charged with tax fraud after admitting to having the undeclared Swiss bank account, Fillon said. The head of the Socialists’ faction in the lower house National Assembly, Claude Bartolone, has also raised concerns about the measure, saying it is not the right solution and amounts to “voyeurism.” Close scrutiny is expected to fall on several ministers suspected of having significant wealth, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, a well-known art-lover whose father was an antiques dealer.

One member of the government, Health and Social Affairs Minister Marisol Touraine, has already said her declaration will show about 1.4 million euros ($1.8 million) in assets, based primarily on several properties in Paris. The junior minister for the disabled, Marie-Arlette Carlotti, has declared owning two apartments and a house in southern France, worth a total of 565,000 euros ($740,000).

Others have made more modest declarations, including Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti who said she owns a 70-square-metre (750-square-foot) flat in Paris where she lives and, jokingly, a David Beckham T-shirt. Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg declared owning a designer lounge chair worth about 4,000 euros ($5,200), while Housing Minister Cecile Duflot, of the Greens, declared two vehicles, raising questions about her environmental footprint. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon has meanwhile mocked the exercise, releasing a long declaration providing his height and weight, his shirt, trouser and shoe sizes, and the assertion that his hair is its natural colour.

An IFOP poll released on Saturday showed 63 per cent of respondents supporting the asset disclosures and 70 per cent saying they would not be surprised to see ministers with high levels of wealth. The declarations are part of a package of reforms put forward by President Francois Hollande in a bid to tackle the Cahuzac scandal, which has further damaged the image of an administration already languishing in public-opinion polls.

Other measures include efforts to crack down on foreign tax havens and a new independent authority to monitor the assets and potential conflicts of interests of ministers, parliamentarians and other senior elected officials. A special prosecutors’ office will also be set up to target tax fraud and corruption. Cahuzac, once the minister responsible for fighting tax evasion, was charged with tax fraud earlier this month when he admitted after repeated denials to having the undeclared foreign bank account containing some 600,000 euros ($770,000).–AFP

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