Inquiry into claims minister had secret Swiss account

Thu, Jan 10, 2013, 00:00

A French prosecutor has opened a preliminary investigation into claims that budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac had a secret bank account in Switzerland.

Mr Cahuzac, who is leading the government’s crackdown on tax evasion, has strongly denied allegations by investigative website Mediapart that he held an undeclared Swiss account up until 2010 – a year before he became a member of President François Hollande’s cabinet.

Mr Hollande said Mr Cahuzac had his full support, but opposition politicians have called on the minister to resign and the saga has hindered the government’s efforts to reassert itself after a series of controversies over its tax policies.

The preliminary inquiry, which does not in itself imply that the authorities have any proof of wrongdoing, could take several months and will lead either to Mr Cahuzac being placed under formal investigation or to the case being dropped for lack of evidence.

Mediapart published its first report on the affair in early December and followed up by posting a recording of a telephone call, which it said dated from 2000, in which a male voice it cited as Mr Cahuzac’s mentions an account he held at UBS. Mr Cahuzac has filed legal complaints against the website and repeated his denial of the allegations on France 2 television on Monday. He said the voice in the recording was not his.

The prosecutor’s office said that, given the sensitivity of the allegations and the time it would take to process Mr Cahuzac’s complaints, it had no option but to open an inquiry immediately.

Awkward timing

Cabinet colleagues have rallied to Mr Cahuzac’s side, but the inquiry comes at an awkward time for the government. One of Mr Hollande’s most prominent ministers, the former plastic surgeon is leading France’s efforts to rein in public spending and cut its budget deficit.

He has been given the delicate task of drafting a new superlevy on the rich after the country’s highest court last week threw out the government’s plan for a 75 per cent tax rate on incomes over €1 million.

The opposition had until this week stopped short of calling for Mr Cahuzac’s resignation, but yesterday Nadine Morano, a prominent member of the right-wing UMP, said he should step down.

“Jérôme Cahuzac welcomes the Paris prosecutor’s decision,” his office said.

“This step will, as he has always said, show his complete innocence of the absurd allegations that he has been subjected to.”