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In radical move, Hollande puts a bit more sunshine into French government

Beset by criticism after a cabinet member confessed to tax evasion, French President Hollande told his ministers to reveal their assets – a rare disclosure in a country that talks little about wealth.

Patrick Kovarik/Reuters/Pool
French President François Hollande arrives for a news conference following the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris last week. Seeking to restore public trust after a budget minister resigned amid allegations of tax fraud, Mr. Hollande said he would step up the fight against tax havens and corruption, including by appointing a specialized financial prosecution office.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault owns two houses and a garage valued at 1.2 million euros, a car and 1988 Volkswagen Kombi van, and has 81,000 euros to pay back in loans.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius owns one apartment and three houses that are worth nearly 4 million euros in total. And Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, in addition to listing the several pieces of land and the house that she owns, also purchased three bikes in 1996, 2005, and 2009 for respectively 200, 400, and 300 euros.

There is nothing extraordinary about these disclosures – except that this is France. And France has, until a corruption scandal rocked the administration of French President François Hollande, remained one of the last European countries to not require public officials to make public their assets.

Now, for the first time, Mr. Hollande demanded that all 38 ministers of his cabinet officially declare their wealth, in an attempt to temper public anger after his former budget minister confessed earlier this month to holding a bank account abroad illegally and evading taxes.

While the move has been praised by anticorruption watchdogs who say that such transparency is the only way to bring France up to international standards, it’s been controversial here, shining a spotlight on a society that is intrinsically uncomfortable with money and wealth – and particularly talking about it.

“It’s an old Catholic behavior, that money is something dirty. So the less you talk about it the better,” says Jacques Terray, the vice president of Transparency International France. “French politicians are not less honest than in other countries, but they don’t want to talk about [money]. So for the ones who are not honest, it’s easier for them to hide.”

The personal wealth and lives of politicians, which Americans regularly fixate on, are largely considered a private matter in France. In fact, France was the only country besides Slovenia, of 25 European countries studied by Transparency International last June, in which MPs' declarations are not made at least partially available for public scrutiny.

Ministers were required to declare their assets by Monday on the French government's website, after Jerôme Cahuzac, the former junior budget minister, admitted April 2 after repeated denials that he had evaded taxes. The scandal has threatened the already vulnerable Hollande administration. Hollande has denied that he knew anything about the tax fraud and pledged to make the political system more transparent.

The disclosure of assets of other officials is to follow when a law is presented later this month.

Long-held attitudes about money here stem from the rural roots of the French, who generations ago kept all their savings concealed in their homes, the prominence of Catholicism with its focus on the poor, and the influence that Marxism used to have on part of the population, says Janine Mossuz-Lavau, a sociologist at the Center for Political Research, part of the Paris Institute of Political Science.

“That doesn’t mean that people have read [Karl] Marx,” says Mossuz-Lavau, who also authored “Who do They Take us for? The Fooleries of our Politicians,” a political essay. “But it means that they remember a simplification [of his philosophy] which is, ‘Profit is not good.’ ”

According to a poll published last December in the daily Le Figaro from the polling group Ifop, 78 percent of the French surveyed said that to be rich is badly or very badly perceived in France.

Do you want my shirt size as well?

The new measure has been derided on both sides of the political spectrum. Jean-François Copé, the president of the right-wing opposition UMP party, said Monday that he strongly opposed the publication of assets of elected officials. “This is not transparency,” Mr. Copé told BMFTV channel. “This is voyeurism.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left leader and co-president of the Left Party, ridiculed the measure by publishing his height, weight, shirt size, and other quirky facts along with his assets on his blog last week.

“I don’t know the value of the works of art I made with my paintbrush, my pencil, or my camera,” Mr. Mélenchon wrote. “I think we are talking about a huge value. I own 12,000 books that I started accumulating at age 14.”

Not all agree that the French are inherently uncomfortable with talking about money, such as Jeanne Lazarus, a sociologist at the Center for Sociology of Organizations, part of the Paris Institute of Political Science. But she says that the French measure of success is a person’s achievements and qualities rather than wealth.

“The main difference between France and the United States is the idea that in France, you are where you are because of your diplomas, because of your personal merit, because of your personal qualities more than because of your financial success,” Ms. Lazarus says.

And a poll published Sunday by Ifop found 63 percent of those surveyed supported the new requirement that ministers and lawmakers make their assets public, while 36 percent of respondents disagreed and 1 percent had no opinion.

Mr. Terray of Transparency International says that historic silence regarding the ruling classes assets has put France – which sits in 9th place in Europe, according to the group's rankings for perceptions of corruption – at risk.

“Transparency has not been the first priority for the people,” he says. But the French are becoming fed up, a mood that might push the status quo. “Scandals like the Cahuzac one will help.”

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