French government blameless in minister scandal: Hollande

RABAT Thu Apr 4, 2013 3:57pm EDT

French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech at the International University of Rabat April 4, 2013. REUTERS/Abdeljalil Bounhar/Pool

French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech at the International University of Rabat April 4, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Abdeljalil Bounhar/Pool

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RABAT (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday the government was blameless in the case of an ex-minister who lied about a secret foreign bank account, as he and top ministers faced more pressure to explain themselves.

Hollande and his finance minister spent a third day fending off criticism and accusations of a cover-up after former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac this week admitted lying about a secret 600,000-euro foreign bank account.

The rapid fall of Cahuzac and new allegations in French media targeting Hollande's campaign treasurer further undermined the government's credibility at a time when faith in its authority and ability to fix the economy is at rock bottom.

"The government is not to be blamed, it is a man who erred," Hollande told reporters in Morocco during a state visit when asked if cabinet members knew of Cahuzac's accounts.

A survey by TNS-Sofres on Thursday showed that Hollande's approval rating had slumped to 27 percent while that of his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was down to 25 percent.

The 10-month-old government faced fresh scrutiny as Le Monde daily, citing leaked corporate data, reported that Hollande's former campaign treasurer had joint ownership of two firms registered in the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean tax haven.

Jean-Jacques Augier told French media that he had no personal investment in the Cayman Islands and was ready to show his corporate accounts to authorities if they requested them.

Asked about the treasurer's activities, Hollande added: "I know nothing of these activities ... If they are in breach of tax law, I ask the administration to take charge and make corrections if they are necessary."

The scandal and Hollande's low popularity have fed media speculation that the president will reshuffle his cabinet, with predictions ranging from the removal of Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, to Ayrault's replacement. Hollande dismissed the possibility of a reshuffle.

Moscovici, Cahuzac's direct superior, appeared on at least five occasions in print and broadcast to fight suggestions that he knew about the accounts and defend the government's handling of the affair.

"I have been blamed in a way that is totally unfair ... As soon as a (judicial) inquiry was opened, Cahuzac was no longer a member of the government," he told RTL radio.

(Additional reporting and writing Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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