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French ministers disclose personal wealth for first time

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

French ministers disclosed their personal wealth for the first time on Monday, in a move President Francois Hollande hopes will restore confidence in his scandal-hit Socialist government.

The revelations -- which aim to help turn the page on a damaging scandal over tax fraud charges laid against ex-budget minister Jerome Cahuzac -- were welcomed with a mix of derision, suspicion and anger.

A total of 37 ministers and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault published their declarations online on the website http://www.declarations-patrimoine.gouvernement.fr/.

Several ministers were under particularly close scrutiny, including foreign minister Laurent Fabius -- a well-known art lover whose father was an antiques dealer and has long been suspected of having significant wealth.

According to the declaration, Fabius is worth a net total of just over six million euros ($7.8 million) -- owning a Paris apartment worth 2.75 million euros, two country houses, a shareholding in auction firm Piasa and other assets.

Ayrault, meanwhile, is worth around 1.6 million euros. He owns two houses and a garage, as well as two cars -- a Volkswagen Combi bought in 1988 and a more recent Citroen -- and 13 bank accounts, some jointly owned.

Hollande himself did not make a new assets declaration Monday, as he already released details of his wealth when elected president.

At the time he declared 1.17 million euros in assets, including a house in the southern town of Mougins and two apartments in Cannes, though he is still paying 1,500 euros a month on loans.

The disclosure has sparked widespread debate in France, where personal finances are rarely discussed and the wealth of public officials has long been considered a private matter.

Lawmakers on both the right and left have decried the move and the government expects a tough battle when it attempts to have the disclosure rule extended to parliamentarians in a bill to be introduced on April 24.

"There should not be any shame in being rich in France! All that these declarations and this display create is disgust. They feed into the worst caricatures," said Camille Bedin, deputy secretary general of the opposition right-wing UMP.

On Twitter, the declaration sparked an avalanche of comments as soon as it was put online.

"I don't care about their assets, I want to know who owns accounts in Switzerland, who is defrauding French tax authorities," @Anthony_Mcll said.

"With this ridiculous comms operation, we've entered into indecency and provocation. The award goes to Taubira and her three bikes," @ArmandSaintJust added, pointing to Justice Minister Christiane Taubira declaring her three bicycles.

The minister for the elderly, Michele Delaunay, had already disclosed her family assets of 5.4 million euros, recognising that her wealth would put her in an uncomfortable position.

"It is significant wealth. And it will be difficult to understand for the majority of the French, who are facing hard times," she said in an interview with the daily Sud-Ouest.

She said revealing their assets had been a "real challenge" but that she supported the disclosure measure.

Others have made more modest declarations, including Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti, who owns a 70-square-metre (750-square-foot) flat in Paris where she lives and a few bank accounts. She is also paying back loans.

The declarations are part of a package of transparency and anti-fraud reforms put forward by Hollande in a bid to tackle the Cahuzac scandal, which has further damaged the image of an administration already languishing in public opinion polls.

Cahuzac, once the minister responsible for fighting tax evasion, was charged with tax fraud earlier this month when he admitted -- after repeated denials -- to having an undeclared foreign bank account containing some 600,000 euros.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130415/french-ministers-disclose-personal-wealth-first-time-1