Cahuzac scandal threatens Hollande's presidency

Jerome Cahuzac (left) and Francois Hollande (right), pictured together in July 2012
Image caption The scandal around Jerome Cahuzac is threatening to engulf the presidency of Francois Hollande

Some are talking of it as one of the worst political-financial crises of the Fifth Republic: a minister caught lying about a foreign bank account.

That might seem a bit of an exaggeration. After all, the past 50 years in France have seen more than their fair share of affaires.

But several aspects of the Cahuzac story do give it an edge - in its cynicism, in what it says about modern French politics, and in its potential repercussions.

First of all there is the barefaced effrontery of it all.

Jerome Cahuzac did not just lie. He looked France in the eye and lied.

In meetings with President Francois Hollande, he insisted he was innocent. In media interviews he said the same.

And most shamefully of all, he stood before the gathered representatives of the people in the National Assembly and said, without the remotest ambiguity, that he had never held a foreign bank account.

But he had.


As the Liberation newspaper put it in its editorial on Thursday: "To the economic and social crisis in which France currently finds itself... is now added a profound crisis of democracy, so fundamental was the contract of trust between people and government that has now been broken."

And of course aggravating this sense of utter recklessness is the knowledge that of all the government, it should be the budget minister who has erred.

A man who was until two weeks ago exhorting the country to ever greater sacrifices in order to repair the economy has been found to have his own personal loophole to evade those very same sacrifices.

What more terrible example of irresponsibility could there be in a democracy?

That is one of the reasons why commentators are saying this affair is more serious than it might otherwise appear: because of the timing, the wider condition of the country, what the French would call "la conjoncture".

The disillusionment that French people feel towards their governing class is already well-documented.

Now, just when a newish government proclaims a return to probity after the supposed excesses of its predecessor, the incomers are revealed to be even worse than the ones they replaced.

Image caption Questions are being asked about how much Mr Cahuzac's colleagues in government knew

The embittered cry of: "Tous pourris!" - "they're all rotten, the lot of them!" - has rarely carried such conviction.

As Roger Lenglet, investigative journalist and author of the book France and Corruption, puts it: "Corruption and tax fraud affect French political life far more deeply than politicians and ministers admit. The Cahuzac affair lifts just one little corner of the veil.

"Setting up accounts in tax havens on behalf of our decision-makers - that's become par for the course for those lobbyists who are prepared to cross the red line."

In the case of Jerome Cahuzac, the alleged abuse is all the more glaring because of the way he is suspected of acquiring the funds he hid away.

Prosecutors believe the million or so euros that entered his accounts first in Switzerland and then in Singapore did not just come from his hair transplant business in the early 1990s.

Hollande vulnerable

They think his position as a senior adviser to the health ministry, and then as an independent "consultant", may have led to certain sweeteners from pharmaceuticals companies.

But the fall-out from the affair will have another victim too - and that is the president himself.

Francois Hollande is already in a very weak position because of declining poll figures and the feeling he has not launched any meaningful programme of change.

Image caption The scandal has forced President Hollande to defend himself to the French people

Now he stands accused again of that old charge: vacillation, an inability to take a stand.

Why, people are asking, did he stand by Jerome Cahuzac for so long?

The scandal first appeared on the Mediapart website back in December. Why did it take so long to appreciate the gravity of the situation?

And worse: what if the president, or members of the government, did know, and preferred not to act?

Various French media are reporting that, shortly after the story first broke, the domestic intelligence services were asked to assess whether the case against Cahuzac stood up. (It hinged on a secret recording which he denied was of him.)

They concluded that the recording was genuine, according to these reports. So why was nothing done?

The government is denying that this intelligence report was ever commissioned, but after all that has happened the press is in no mood to listen.

As Liberation says, it is the same old question: "Who knew what, and when?"

So yes, the answer is that the Cahuzac affair is indeed one of the most serious of the Fifth Republic.

The money may be peanuts compared to the Elf affair. Francois Mitterrand may have hidden a secret daughter. Giscard d'Estaing may have taken jewels from Africa. Jacques Chirac used Paris city hall as a political milch cow.

But context is all.

When the house is rotten, it does not take a tornado to pull it down.

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