French cabinet ministers forced to publicly declare assests

Move follows scandal of tax-cheating former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac

French foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius whose declaration was the most eagerly awaited. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

French foreign affairs minister Laurent Fabius whose declaration was the most eagerly awaited. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

Tue, Apr 16, 2013, 06:00

a third of President François Hollande’s 33 cabinet ministers jumped the gun, publicly declaring the value of their apartments, houses, cars, bank accounts, jewels and works of art before yesterday’s deadline, set by the president in the hope of putting the scandal of tax-cheating former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac behind him.

The other two-thirds waited for the details of their wealth to be disclosed yesterday evening on the website. One now has only to click on a minister’s photograph on the site to see a list of his or her assets.

When he announced the measure on April 10th, Mr Hollande said “the failings of one man should not throw discredit or suspicion on elected officials who are devoted to the public good”.

The socialist speaker of the National Assembly, Claude Bartolone, called the transparency offensive a “snub” to members of parliament and said it would be “completely ineffective in preventing attempted fraud . . . If we had asked Cahuzac to publish his assets, would that have changed anything?”

The former conservative agriculture minister Dominique Bussereau liked the operation to a Paris nightclub, calling it “the big striptease at the government Crazy Horse”.

Opponents of the measure, including not a few socialists, predicted it would lead to voyeurisme . In his declaration, prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault admitted to assets totalling €1.5 million, surpassing the €1.3 million limit beyond which French taxpayers must pay the ISF wealth tax.

The most eagerly awaited declaration was that of foreign minister Laurent Fabius, whose father and grandfather were famous art dealers. Mr Fabius came in as the most wealthy member of the government, with €6 million in assets.

The minister for health and social affairs, Marisol Touraine, declared a personal fortune worth €1.4 million. Michèle Delaunay, the junior minister for the aged, who is a medical doctor and former hospital official, said it was “a trial” for her and her husband to report their wealth of €5.4 million, most of it in property.

Others engaged in what the far right-wing National Front leader Marine LePen mocked as “the race to poverty”.

Eric Tréguier of the economic magazine Challenges said the property values stated in the first declarations were between 30 and 40 per cent below market prices.

Renault 4L
Most ministers’ cars seemed to be at least 10 years old, and none reported owning a foreign-made automobile. Minister for housing Cécile Duflot declared a Twingo worth €1,500 and an elderly Renault 4L that she had purchased in francs.

We learned that government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud- Belkacem has €25,000 in savings, that the boisterous industry minister Arnaud Montebourg owns an armchair by the US designer Charles Eames, valued at €28,000.

The “striptease” will be extended to members of parliament after they vote on Mr Hollande’s law on the “moralisation of public life”, which will be presented in cabinet on April 24th. Unpopular as it is among politicians, the move has public support: 63 per cent of those surveyed told the Journal du Dimanche they considered it necessary.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Hollande’s transparency initiative will change deeply ingrained attitudes. When ignorant Americans talk about their salaries or the price of things, the French cringe. For centuries in France, it’s been bad form to talk about money. Before the revolution, the aristocracy didn’t need to discuss it; their disinterest became an affectation of the bourgeoisie.

The new transparency is not without drawbacks. It heightens the sense among the wealthy that they are hunted and hated, and seems to confirm that possessing money – even legitimately earned – is a source of shame in France.

Less than two weeks after promising a choc de simplification , Mr Hollande has created three new government bureaucracies to keep cabinet ministers under surveillance.

Meanwhile, the Cahuzac affair has taken on a life of its own, with dubious scoops published almost daily by French and Swiss media. The disgraced minister, who lied with effrontery about his accounts in Switzerland and Singapore, has been expelled from the socialist party.

He has until Friday to resign from his seat in the national assembly. But despite fervent pleas and angry denunciations from his former comrades, Mr Cahuzac says he still hasn’t made up his mind.