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France: tax, lies and audiotape

France: tax, lies and audiotape
By Euronews
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A budget minister entrusted with rebalancing France’s books in a time of great economic difficulty is guilty of tax fraud, setting off political shockwaves.

Jerome Cahuzac denied it for months before admitting it. We look into the consequences with an interview guest.

But first, here is a recap of the main points.

Jerome Cahuzac’s 600,000 euro denial problem has stupefied France. His admission of an undisclosed bank account knocked the political wind out of President François Hollande.

The president had made it his ambition to offer the Republic exemplary behaviour. Then came the resignation of his budget minister on 19 March, over a suspicion he had hidden some money in a Swiss vault for 20 years.

Cahuzac’s job had been to eke out five billion euros of additional savings for next year’s budget, and to squeeze up six billion euros more revenue.

French online newspaper Mediapart broke the story last December, publishing a transcript of a four minute long audio recording in which it alleged Cahuzac had said, just before a big promotion to head the parliamentary finance commission in February 2010:

“What bothers me is that I still have an account open at UBS. But there’s nothing there any more, right? The only way to close it is to go.”

It said, in French: “Ca fait chier… ‘It pisses me off.’ I can’t send someone else?”

Cahuzac took libel action against Mediapart, and he swore up and down it wasn’t true. He lied brazenly, on camera, on radio, in parliament, in flagrante.

“I deny it wholesale and retail,” he said.

“I deny categorically the allegations on the website Mediapart. I have never – ever – had an account abroad.”

But police analysis of the voice in the recording stacked the case against him, and when Cahuzac was placed under investigation the budget minister’s fall was only a matter of time.

He finally owned up. The cardiologist who had become a plastic surgeon before he became a politician and was appointed to lead François Hollande’s Socialist clampdown on tax evasion wrote his mea culpa in his personal blog on Tuesday.

We spoke with Christian Delporte, a political historian and media and communication specialist, to examine the question in depth.

Sophie Desjardin, euronews: “Firstly, what do you think about the four months of lying by the former budget minister, and his adamant denials, publicly playing at being offended and outraged?”

Christian Delporte: “This is going to leave lots of marks. This is a disaster for political credibility, which had already lost a lot of value in France. We’re also going through a very difficult period economically. The Hollande government wanted to return to moral public discourse and what has happened is quite rigorously just the opposite. So, this political crisis is just getting started. Mr Cahuzac isn’t just anyone. He was the budget minister, someone who is supposed to set an example, to fight tax fraud. This throws the government’s strict policy into doubt, given that Cahuzac was very much placed in the forefront, was doubtless chosen to reassure the markets. How to explain to the French people they have to make sacrifices, when at the height of state power these words are not being respected?”

euronews: “Political error goes down badly, especially when ordinary people are having a difficult time, but the lying has been seen as even worse. The French showed this in their reactions this morning.”

Delporte: “Lying is a shared thing in politics. The French are convinced that politicians are constantly lying to them, and here they have the proof: a minister confessing, which is quite exceptional.”

euronews: “The opposition, the media and people in the street are attacking this so-called ‘Republic above reproach’ that François Hollande wanted. What impact will this have on the government and the president?”

Delporte: “It comes at the worst time. What can the government do? First it can take offence, explain that an individual was responsible, that Prime Minister Ayrault didn’t know, that the president didn’t know. That doesn’t mean that the president is safe if he didn’t know what was going on – thought Cahuzac was not guilty. The government’s authority could suffer, since it was already in grave danger in opinion polls.”

euronews: “Beyond this case and this government, investigations and scandals have been multiplying in political circles. There’s a feeling that everyone is rotten, and a demand for transparency. For whose benefit?”

Delporte: “The French are demanding the truth, yes, but I think, in a way, that they’ve stopped believing, and that is the most serious thing of all. We are in a political crisis which has gone so far as to become a moral crisis of democracy itself.”

euronews: “I was going to ask you: this discrediting of the political class… is it good for democracy?”

Delporte: “No, obviously not; it can’t be good for democracy. If the Cahuzac case affects the left today, the right is equally affected by other scandals, and the build-up of all of them risks going in favour of those who say that the whole political class is corrupt and we have to try something different. There will be a price to pay at the next elections in 2014, and it will come as no surprise that the extremes, notably the extreme right, make the most of it.”

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