PARIS – The wealthiest member of France’s Socialist government, French people learned Monday, is Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who inherited a $7.8 million fortune from his family’s trade in art and antiques. But Michele Delaunay, minister for the aged, also disclosed a comfortable stash: $7 million, mostly in inherited real estate along the Atlantic coast.
Ministers rich and poor — all 38 members of President Francois Hollande’s government — were required to declare their assets in public Monday for the first time. The disclosures marked a historic departure for French politics, which has a long, notorious tradition of under-the-table campaign financing and polite silence on personal wealth often acquired on modest government salaries.
“This is a revolution for France,” said Maurice Szafran, editor of the weekly magazine Marianne.
The tradition of winking at financial sleight of hand has become increasingly unacceptable in the public eye over the past two decades, and prosecutors have pursued a number of officials for misuse of public funds. Former President Jacques Chirac, for example, was tried for paying fictional employees when he was mayor of Paris, and former President Nicolas Sarkozy is charged with taking advantage of a rich heiress to raise campaign funds.
Against that background, the revelations Monday, although they would be commonplace in the U.S. and many European countries, were breathlessly detailed on France’s all-news television stations and online news organizations as soon as they were posted, duly audited, on the government’s website.
Hollande’s order marked the first step in a “morality in politics” program decreed after former Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac admitted two weeks ago that he had a secret Swiss bank account, despite months of lies to the contrary. Cahuzac, a wealthy plastic surgeon specializing in hair implants, was immediately sacked and expelled from the Socialist Party.
Hollande, declaring himself jolted and hurt, said he had been lied to along with the rest of the country. But the scandal nevertheless washed over his government, which already was under attack for its handling of a grave economic slowdown.
Seeking to deflect the criticism, Hollande decreed not only that his ministers would have to detail their holdings, but also that he will propose a law this month requiring members of the National Assembly and other high officials to do the same. At the same time, he said, the government will intensify the fight against tax evasion and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate economic crimes.
Previous rules required National Assembly members to report their assets to a parliamentary authority that, in principle, monitored any enrichment while in office. But the findings were never revealed and the lawmakers acknowledged that the system was largely inoperative. Ministers, picked by the president, filed similar reports on taking office, also confidential.
Despite opinion polls indicating that the public is eager for more transparency in political finances, conservative opposition leaders denounced Hollande’s steps as a diversion from a mishandled economic policy and questions about who knew of Cahuzac’s lies. It is fine to tighten controls on official finances, they said, but revealing assets to the public can only satisfy morbid curiosity.
“Please, please, let’s avoid this voyeurism,” said Jean-Francois Cope, who heads the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the main conservative party.
Government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said there is nothing contradictory in seeing a Socialist government embrace wealthy ministers. The problem with Cahuzac, she noted, was not that he was wealthy but that he had an illegal Swiss bank account in order to evade the very tax laws he was in charge of enforcing.