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(FILES) - A picture taken on December 11, 2012, at the National Assembly in Paris, shows French Junior Minister for Budget, Jerome Cahuzac attending a session of questions to the government. Disgraced former French budget minister Jerome Cahuzac, who is embroiled in a major tax fraud scandal that has shaken the government, is due to announce his resignation as a member of parliament on April 16, 2013 on French TV news channel BFM-TV, according to daily newspaper La Depeche du Midi. AFP PHOTO PATRICK KOVARIK
(FILES) - A picture taken on December 11, 2012, at the National Assembly in Paris, shows French Junior Minister for Budget, Jerome Cahuzac attending a session of questions to the government. Disgraced former French budget minister Jerome Cahuzac, who is embroiled in a major tax fraud scandal that has shaken the government, is due to announce his resignation as a member of parliament on April 16, 2013 on French TV news channel BFM-TV, according to daily newspaper La Depeche du Midi. AFP PHOTO PATRICK KOVARIK
Bordeaux mayor and founder of the French opposition right-wing UMP party, Alain Juppe answers journalists' questions as he participates in the "Le Grand Rendez-Vous" program at the headquarters of French radio station Europe 1 in Paris, on November 25, 2012. Party heavyweight Juppe, a former premier and foreign minister, will hold a mediation meeting later in the day with the right-winger, who was declared the winner of November 22 knife-edge vote to pick a party leader, Jean-Francois Cope, and his centrist rival Francois Fillon. The talks are to establish who actually won the leadership and whether mutual allegations of ballot rigging have any foundation. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD
Bordeaux mayor and founder of the French opposition right-wing UMP party, Alain Juppe answers journalists' questions as he participates in the 'Le Grand Rendez-Vous' program at the headquarters of French radio station Europe 1 in Paris, on November 25, 2012. Party heavyweight Juppe, a former premier and foreign minister, will hold a mediation meeting later in the day with the right-winger, who was declared the winner of November 22 knife-edge vote to pick a party leader, Jean-Francois Cope, and his centrist rival Francois Fillon. The talks are to establish who actually won the leadership and whether mutual allegations of ballot rigging have any foundation. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD

Hollande popularity plummets as politicians reveal wealth

After Francoise Hollande was elected to lead France he wore his socialist agenda on his sleeve, proudly asserting his tenure would mark an end to political scandal in Paris. One year on, little seems to have changed.

Everyone, Jérôme Cahuzac insisted in his first public declarations since resigning in disgrace as France's budget minister, has a dark side.

The shady aspect of his own life concerns what he did with some of the money he made as a cosmetic surgeon specialising in hair transplants and his acting as technical adviser to pharmaceutical companies back in the 1990s.

In government, he was tasked with getting the French deficit down to 3 per cent of GDP this year, a target that seems increasingly unlikely to be attained. The deficit last year came in at 4.8 per cent.

And now he is gone.

He joins a disturbing list of former presidents, former prime ministers, cabinet members, mayors, regional politicians and business leaders in France whose achievements have been tarnished by the suspicion of impropriety.

When Mr Hollande surged to presidential power a year ago next month, with an emphatic victory for his socialist party in the parliamentary elections soon afterwards, there were plenty of doubters. Would his tax-and-spend manifesto drive away investors and wealth creators and plunge a sluggish economy into deeper crisis? Were he and his ministers, few with experience of government, really up to the task?

With too many inclined to reply "yes" to the first and "no" to the second, the immediate future for France looked uncertain. There was one saving grace: Mr Hollande's claim, after France's years of sleaze mostly implicating the centre-right, to occupy higher moral ground.

He would preside as Mr Clean, his government would be honourable and all its members would conduct their personal affairs in irreproachable fashion or be removed. Enter the "république exemplaire" in which, by implication, no one would act as if above the law.

Then came "l'affaire Cahuzac". In western politics, some scandals quickly fizzle out.

This one, driven over a period of months by the investigative news website Mediapart, has grown and grown, leading to an excruciating outbreak of soul-baring by the French left and the official disclosure of every minister's wealth - or lack of it.

By delicious coincidence - the timing was decided by the Cahuzac fallout - the office of Mr Hollande's prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, has published the list online (www.declarations-patrimoine.gouvernement.fr/) just as voters were being reminded it was time to complete annual tax returns. And the means at ministers' personal disposal turned out to range from the relatively modest to the substantial.

Sceptics wondered about the missing ingredients in some cases - the fortunes belonging to politicians' partners -and the satirical newspaper Le Canard enchainé noted that ministers could disclose assets extending from shared parking spaces or pitiful savings to luxurious apartments while drawing a veil over accounts in an overseas "fiscal paradise". For others, it was an undignified stunt.

"I am against this public undressing, this striptease," said Georges Ginesta, an opposition UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) member of parliament representing an area including the twin Riviera resorts of Fréjus and Saint-Raphaël.

He told the Var-Matin newspaper: "It is a useless smokescreen. The Cahuzac affair is the work of one man who cheated, not a system."

Mr Cahuzac's transgressions, which could lead to criminal charges alleging tax evasion or money laundering, concerned deposits in an undeclared Swiss bank account. He says the total was €600,000 (Dh2.88 million), not the even larger sums touted in the media and reportedly including deposits in Singapore.

Even so, he admits to having told a "spiral of lies" when denying, in parliament and outside, the existence of his foreign deposits. His political career appears to be in ruins.

But others have bounced back after comparable falls from grace.

Jacques Chirac, the president from 1995 to 2007, remains a highly popular, if physically ailing, figure in France despite having been put on trial since leaving office for the abuse of public money during his terms as mayor of Paris. He was given a two-year suspended jail sentence over the creation of fictitious city hall jobs for political allies and friends.

Alain Juppé, a Chirac ally and a former prime minister who had earlier received a suspended sentence for his part in the same scheme, returned from political exclusion to serve with distinction as Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign minister.

The next potential embarrassment in French public life brings together the worlds of politics, finance and business.

Christine Lagarde, who became the head of the IMF when the French presidential contender Dominique Strauss-Kahn was forced out by sex-crime allegations, has been summoned to a judicial hearing next month. A magistrate will question her role, as France's economy minister, in a settlement that saw the controversial businessman Bernard Tapie collect more than €400m in a dispute arising from the 1994 sale of the adidas sports goods firm.

Ms Lagarde denies any wrongdoing. Since she was a minister in Mr Sarkozy's UMP government, the affair cannot add to the problems of Mr Hollande and his part. But the president's renewed demands for moral rigour among ministers are an acknowledgement of the strength of public feeling when figures of the left are suspected of seeking private financial gain from misconduct.

There has been much talk of la gauche caviar, the French equivalent of "champagne socialism".

The damage inflicted on the Hollande regime is evident in opinion polls showing his approval rating at a historic low for a president only one year into his five-year mandate.

It hardly helps him in his fight to persuade business to invest and industrialists to halt the wave of factory closures that have alienated large sections of the electorate.

And in the wake of the Cahuzac affair, he could almost certainly do without the moralising tone of commentators in, of all places, Switzerland.

One, writing for Le Temps newspaper in Geneva, said the scandal reflected "a form of impunity that all-powerful political elite grants itself, without effective counterbalances".

 

business@thenational.ae

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