Published April 12, 2013
PARIS – He feels hounded and, like a marked man, says he changes locations every few days.
Less than a month ago, Jerome Cahuzac, France's disgraced former budget minister, was the hunter, with an eye out for any citizen who cheated tax authorities by hiding cash abroad. He was devoted to President Francois Hollande's effort to fill the government's depleted coffers as the economy sputtered.
Cahuzac's belated admission that he kept his own secret offshore accounts is now destabilizing France's Socialist government, less than a year after Hollande assumed office with pledges to replace the perceived "bling-bling" of his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, with moral rectitude.
The scent of scandal expanded this week to Cahuzac's boss, Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, with allegations by a weekly magazine that he knew of his colleague's guilt in December — a claim Moscovici denies.
And Cahuzac, 60, who was formally expelled from the Socialist Party this week and says he is on the run from paparazzi, may not be done causing havoc.
He indicated he is considering a return to the parliamentary seat he gave up to become minister, as allowed by law, a notion that appalls former colleagues.
The scandal surrounding Cahuzac, uncovered by journalists, has inspired the French media to poke into a number of politicians' finances.
In his first interview since resigning last month, Cahuzac told a southern France newspaper, La Depeche du Midi, that he "changes households every two days to flee the pressure." He was quoted as saying he's surprised how quickly the media follow his trail.
Cahuzac said he hasn't decided whether to return to his seat in the National Assembly, the lower house. "I haven't yet made my decision," he said. By law, he has until April 19 to do so.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Friday that such a return would be "a terrible indecency."
French authorities have filed preliminary charges against Cahuzac for alleged money laundering, and their counterparts in Switzerland are providing information on accounts there. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a 375,000 euro ($481,500) fine.
Earlier this week, the weekly magazine Valeurs Actuelles alleged that Moscovici knew the truth well before Cahuzac's April 2 confession on his blog, within days of the first report from the investigative website Mediapart.
"This stupid, stupid, stupid and malicious affair must end immediately," Moscovici said on BFM-TV Thursday evening. "This bad soap opera must stop ... before it ruins the image of our fiscal administration."
As the presidents of the finance commissions in the upper and lower houses of parliament try to determine what Moscovici might have known, political pundits are speculating about an imminent shakeup of a government whose popularity continues to fall.
The latest poll, published Friday by the daily Le Parisien, said 62 percent of adults considered the president "incompetent" in his response to the economic crisis. BVA Opinion didn't ask about Cahuzac in the April 3-4 survey, which questioned 986 people recruited by phone and surveyed online. The margin of error would be plus or minus 3 percentage points.
On Wednesday, Hollande set out a tough new set of rules of financial conduct for government officials, notably requiring members of his Cabinet to publicly disclose their assets and their value. The rules are eventually meant to apply to all lawmakers.
In the meantime, the government said it plans to move beyond Cahuzac.
"I am convinced that there will be a before and there will be an after," Prime Minister Ayrault said Thursday.