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After the rain, the storm: Hollande lashed by scandal

It never rains but it pours for beleaguered French President Francois Hollande, who has been blindsided by a political crisis whilst grappling with a deep economic and social malaise. The French leader, nicknamed Rainman for his knack of attracting downpours during public appearances, is at the centre of a new political storm.

The latest crisis to afflict him was triggered by a confession by his former budget czar, Jerome Cahuzac. Cahuzac, who as budget minister until three weeks ago was responsible for cracking down on tax fraud, exploded a political bomb in Hollande’s 11-month-old presidency this week by suddenly admitting to having stashed money in a secret foreign account for 20 years.

The disclosure ended four months of vehement denials by the ex-minister about a Swiss bank account revealed by investigative news site Mediapart in December. Following his confession he was immediately charged with tax fraud. Cahuzac, who had continued to protest his innocence after resigning on March 19, wrote on his blog that he had been “caught up in a spiral of lies” and asked for forgiveness.

The damage looks set to be significant for Hollande, who was elected on a promise to restore ethics to politics after a slew of scandals under his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. A member of Hollande’s Socialist Party summed up the sense of betrayal within the movement. “The country is in misery. We’re scrimping to save 0.5 per cent on the budget deficit and we have a budget chief who himself is committing fraud and telling barefaced lies!” an apoplectic Gerard Filoche told LC1 channel, his voice shaking with emotion.

“Who are we kidding? I’m a Socialist but I can’t tolerate that,” he added. Hollande rushed to try to put out the fire on Wednesday with a solemn televised declaration. Cahuzac had “deceived the highest authorities in the country: the head of state, the head of government, parliament and through it the French people,” he said sternly. The 60-year-old plastic surgeon, who made a fortune from hair implants before being brought into government last year, had “benefited from no protection, other than the presumption of innocence,” Hollande insisted. But the questions over who knew what and when about Cahuzac’s account still hang thick in the air.

“What Hollande knew,” was Thursday’s front-page headline in the left-leaning Liberation daily. Over seven pages of coverage, the paper described Hollande as having been “in denial” during the three months between the Mediapart exclusive, which included a recording of a man presented as Cahuzac discussing a Swiss account, and the minister’s resignation.

In a France 2 television interview this week, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault admitted to having harboured suspicions. But, without proof, “neither I, nor the president nor parliament had any reason not to believe him,” he argued. It’s an argument that is unlikely to wash with disillusioned French voters, who are drifting more and more towards the far left and far right out of disgust with mainstream politicians, seen increasingly as “tous pourris” (all rotten).

For daily Le Monde, Hollande comes across as “either naive or incompetent” or as having “more or less covered up the lie,” with his latest proposals about how to clean up politics doing little to restore the shattered confidence. Hollande has announced plans for legislation forcing ministers and parliamentarians to disclose all their assets. But, as Mediapart was quick to point out, Cahuzac signed a document when he became minister saying he had disclosed all his income. And that did not prevent him from lying.

Hollande has also announced a ban on officials convicted of fraud or corruption seeking public office. But the country’s Constitutional Court already struck down such a proposal in 2010, on the grounds that it would constitute a double “punishment.” With few tricks left up his sleeve, speculation is rife that Hollande may soon reshuffle his cabinet.

A TNS Sofres poll published Thursday showed the urgency of rapid action: Hollande’s approval rating at the end of March – before Cahuzac’s confession, stood at 27 per cent, the lowest level for a French president at this stage of his mandate in over 30 years.

Clare Byrne, "After the rain, the storm: Hollande lashed by scandal," Business recorder. 2013-04-05.