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French tax scandal pursues Hollande on Morocco trip

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

French President Francois Hollande was to address Morocco's parliament on Thursday as political pressure mounted over a tax fraud scandal in France that has overshadowed his two-day visit to the kingdom.

Hollande on the first day Wednesday of the landmark visit managed to avoid any reference to his ex-budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, charged this week in a tax fraud probe after he finally admitted to having a secret foreign bank account.

But the scandal, seen as a political tsunami in France, will be harder to avoid when the embattled president holds a press conference at the end of his trip later Thursday, that will be attended by a large French press corp.

As Hollande arrived in Morocco on Wednesday, where he was met by King Mohammed VI, his Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault faced a barrage of questions at the National Assembly in Paris, with the opposition demanding accountability.

The president has been quick to condemn Cahuzac's actions, saying he had committed an "unforgivable moral error" and denying any knowledge of his secret foreign account. He also vowed a new law within weeks to scrutinse the wealth of ministers and parliamentarians.

But critics have pounced on the scandal, the biggest political crisis since Hollande came to power last May, which has eclipsed French news coverage of the Morocco trip aimed at boosting bilateral ties.

In another potential headache for Hollande, French newspaper Le Monde reported on Thursday that the treasurer of his presidential campaign last year holds shares in two companies registered in the Cayman Islands tax haven.

After an early visit to Casablanca's vast Hassan II seafront mosque, the president headed to Rabat for a marathon day of meetings, notably with Islamist Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, as well as business leaders and civil society activists.

Speaking to the French community in Casablanca, Hollande hailed the "democratic transition that Morocco has committed to, which is gathering pace with the adoption of the new constitution" introduced after mass protests in 2011.

But he also recognised that "there are still, as in all democracies, imperfections, progress, improvements," making only oblique references to the crisis in France.

One of the president's top priorities is to encourage French businesses to invest in Morocco, after France was overtaken by Spain in 2012 as the top exporter to the north African country of 32 million people.

At the royal palace on Wednesday some 30 bilateral accords worth an estimated 300 million euros were signed by French ministers and company executives, notably in the transport sector.

Hollande will use the speech in parliament on Thursday to again deliver a "message of confidence" on France's main partner in the Maghreb, and to discuss "the main issues" in the region, including Syria, Mali, and the Arab Spring, a source in his entourage said.

He is likely to emphasise that "Morocco has found the right path, is going in the right direction, in the context of the Arab Spring, which offers much potential but also brings risks," according to a French diplomat.

He will also hail "the very clear position" of the king in favour of the French intervention in Mali, expressed at an Islamic summit in Cairo in early February.

Morocco was upset that the president chose to visit its arch north African rival Algeria on his first visit to the French-speaking region three months ago.

But the page has since been turned in French-Moroccan relations, with Hollande on Wednesday thanking the king for supporting France's military intervention in Mali, while congratulating him on having "anticipated the Arab Spring."

International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders have urged the French leader to press Moroccan officials about "persistent" rights abuses in the kingdom, including torture in detention and curbs on press freedom.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130404/french-tax-scandal-pursues-hollande-morocco-trip