French ministers to declare assets publicly after scandal

PARIS (AFP) - France's Socialist government said 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 on Monday 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.

Mr 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.

"The prime minister is preparing... a package of measures to ensure complete transparency on the assets of politicians and staff working with ministers, the president and the prime minister," the statement said.

He 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".

Mr Hollande's government has been shaken by the scandal, which erupted last Tuesday after Mr Cahuzac - once in charge of tackling tax evasion - admitted to investigators that he had a foreign account containing some 600,000 euros (S$966,000).

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

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

French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, who had earlier cancelled a meeting on Tuesday in Paris with visiting US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, late Monday announced that the meeting was now on for 1345 GMT (9.45pm Singapore time) at the US embassy.

Mr 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 Mr 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 "rumour" 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.

Polls have shown widespread discontent with the handling of the crisis by the government and Hollande, who is languishing in the polls less than a year after defeating right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency.

In a survey published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, three in five respondents said they were in favour of a government reshuffle over the scandal.