French ministers to declare assets publicly after scandal

French former Budget minister Jerome Cahuzac arrives at the financial pole in Paris, on April 2, 2013. Cahuzac, who resigned on March 19, was being heard by investigating judges on April 2, 2013.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — France's Socialist government said Monday it had ordered ministers to declare their assets publicly within days, as it seeks to limit the damage from a tax fraud scandal involving an ex-minister.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced that ministers would have until April 15 to publish details of their assets as part of a package of new financial transparency measures.

The government will also put forward a law on financial transparency among ministers and other top officials by April 24, with plans for it to be adopted by the summer, he said in a statement.

The move comes as President Francois Hollande's government scrambles to contain a scandal surrounding former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac, who last week was charged with tax fraud after admitting to having an undeclared foreign bank account.

Hollande is desperately seeking to re-establish his credentials as a clean-hands president after last year's election pledge to turn France into an "exemplary republic" was muddied by the revelations that his budget minister had lied to parliament over a hidden Swiss bank account.

Cahuzac's revelations have sent a shock wave through French politics and hammered Hollande's popularity.

A poll published Monday by the weekly Le Point said 70 percent of voters now had a negative opinion of the president elected less than a year ago — the fastest decline in the history of the republic.

Hollande is now launching a counter attack, seeking to clean up France's political act.

"It's good that all those who exercise public responsibility — ministers, legislators or those elected to other major offices — should make their assets public," said Ayrault. "It should help restore confidence."

Ayrault said in a statement that measures to boost financial transparency would be presented to a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, adding he would meet with the speakers and faction chiefs of the lower and upper houses of the French parliament the following day.

Ayrault said measures would also be taken to "more severely punish breaches of the financial law and ethics and integrity rules, and to strengthen the fight against tax fraud and tax havens."

Without waiting for the new rules, a number of politicians are racing join in the new spirit of openness.

Minister for the Disabled Marie-Arlette Carlotti, listed her assets on her blog, including apartments in Marseille and Corsica, and a Toyota.

Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon went on TV to announce he was the owner of a house worth $850,000 in the western Sarthe region, less than $130,000 in savings and two second-hand cars.

Such financial transparency is new in France, where the private lives of politicians used to be considered sacrosanct. Fillon, who served under the previous president Nicolas Sarkozy, complained of a wave of "voyeurism."

But in the wake of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, Cahuzac's revelations and lingering questions about party financing under Sarkozy, the public is demanding politicians come clean.

Another poll published in L'Express magazine this week said 63 percent of French voters believe their politicians were likely to be corrupt.

Cahuzac scandal

Hollande's government has been shaken by the scandal surrounding Cahuzac scandal — once in charge of tackling tax evasion — admitted to investigators that he had a foreign account containing some 600,000 euros ($770,000).

Cahuzac — who resigned on March 19 after prosecutors opened a probe into the account, first revealed by the Mediapart news website in December — had repeatedly denied its existence to the president, in parliament and in media interviews.

Critics have rounded on Hollande and his ministers, accusing them of either trying to cover up the scandal or of mismanagement for having believed Cahuzac's denials.

Many have called for a government reshuffle — a move that was rejected by Hollande and Ayrault last week.

French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, who had earlier cancelled a meeting Tuesday in Paris with visiting US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, late Monday announced that the meeting was now on for 1345 GMT at the US embassy.

Moscovici also said in a statement that he wanted to attend a question time in the National Assembly with the prime minister, which is expected to focus on the government's handling of the tax fraud scandal.

The scandal has focused the spotlight on the personal finances of those close to Hollande, including his former campaign treasurer who was revealed last week to have been a partner in two companies based in the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, meanwhile, was on Sunday forced to deny a "rumor" in a newspaper report claiming that he may have a Swiss bank account, and he vowed legal action over the "false and slanderous information."

The government has also said it will seek to tighten Europe-wide measures on tax evasion by strengthening the exchange of banking information throughout the continent.

Paul Ames contributed to this report from Brussels.