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French ministers face first-ever assets declaration

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

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

With the economy stagnant, unemployment on the rise and the government slashing spending, senior officials admit the move is risky and could create resentment by unmasking several millionaire ministers.

But the government has pushed ahead in the hopes the measure will help turn the page on a damaging scandal over tax fraud charges laid against ex-budget minister Jerome Cahuzac after he admitted having a secret Swiss bank account.

The assets of 37 ministers and of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, originally due at 1500 GMT Monday, will now be published online at 1700 GMT -- a delay the government said was to ensure proper security and access.

The move has sparked widespread debate in France, where personal finances are rarely discussed and -- unlike in the United States where politicians often publish their tax returns -- 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.

The head of the main opposition right-wing UMP, Jean-Francois Cope, said Monday that the measure would only "create tensions" in French society.

"The only consequence of all of this voyeurism will be that a certain number of people -- businesspeople, artisans, professionals -- will no longer want to engage in public life," he told BFMTV.

Close scrutiny is expected to fall on several ministers suspected of having significant wealth, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, a well-known art-lover whose father was an antiques dealer.

The minister for the elderly, Michele Delaunay, on Monday disclosed family assets of 5.4 million euros ($7 million), 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.

Delaunay, the former head of a cancer clinic, said she and her husband had acquired their four homes and significant savings over lifetimes of work as well as through inheritance.

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

"It is probably a necessary step toward a real battle against tax evasion and fraud," she said. "If we had not taken it, in the context of Cahuzac, it may have been seen as a desire to protect certain people."

Other ministers have also already come forward with their declarations.

Health and Social Affairs Minister Marisol Touraine said her declaration will show about 1.4 million euros in assets, based primarily on several properties in Paris.

Others have made more modest declarations, including Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti, who said she owns a 70-square-metre (750-square-foot) flat in Paris where she lives and, jokingly, a David Beckham T-shirt.

Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg declared owning a designer lounge chair worth about 4,000 euros, while Housing Minister Cecile Duflot, of the Greens, declared a 168,000 euro home and two cars, including a 14-year-old Renault Twingo.

Hollande himself will not be making a new declaration 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 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 the undeclared foreign bank account containing some 600,000 euros.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130415/french-ministers-face-first-ever-assets-declaration-1