Ministers' wealth list to expose France's "caviar left"

Fri Apr 12, 2013 7:03am EDT

* French government risks a storm with wealth inventory

* Hollande scrabbling to stem budget minister scandal

* Junior ministers rush to show they live frugally

By Catherine Bremer

PARIS, April 12 (Reuters) - An inventory of French ministers' assets could set off a storm when it goes public on Monday, exposing a handful of millionaires in the Socialist government as the nation endures spending cuts and rampant unemployment.

For the first time in France, President Francois Hollande is publishing a list of bank deposits and property held by all 38 ministers as he scrambles to stem public fury over his ex-budget minister's disclosure he lied about a secret Swiss bank account.

While the register will exclude their stakes in companies, it could still reveal enough riches to trigger resentment of the "caviar left" in a country with a cultural distaste of ostentatious wealth.

Topping the list could be Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the oldest and most experienced of Hollande's ministers, but also the richest, with a fortune estimated in the millions euros, much of it in the form of inherited works of art.

"We're taking a risk. It's the risk of transparency," acknowledged a senior government official, adding with a sigh: "This country has a very particular relationship with money."

Whereas public officials in dozens of countries including the United States routinely publish their tax returns, politicians' finances are considered a private matter in France.

Hollande, who pleased the grass-roots left by declaring in 2007 that he disliked rich people, wants to pass a law later in April forcing parliamentarians to also declare their wealth.

The gamble is that rather than calm the scandal over Jerome Cahuzac, the budget minister who quit in disgrace last month and is now under investigation for tax fraud, the asset inventory could trigger calls for more heads to roll.

"There will be a before and an after," Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Thursday after meeting lawmakers opposed to publishing their assets.

SUPER TAX

Opposition conservatives scoffed at the plan.

Jean Francois Cope, head of the UMP party that Hollande ousted from power last May, said it smacked of voyeurism.

Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe, a well-heeled former foreign minister, called it "grotesque" as he posted a statement of his property and bank accounts online, despite not being required to.

Hollande has always made clear his dislike of money, marking his difference from Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the onetime presidential hopeful whose ex-wife is a millionaire heiress.

He declared a decade ago that anybody earning more than 4,000 euros a month counted as rich and is pushing to impose a 75 percent "super tax" on income over a million euros.

While Fabius is a respected Socialist Party veteran, he is also the son of a rich antique dealer father, an art collector himself, and owns a chunk of French auction house, Piasa.

A dinosaur in Hollande's youthful government, the 67-year-old has a valuable gravitas and breadth of experience as a former prime minister, finance, budget and industry minister.

Also high up on Monday's list will be Health Minister Marisol Touraine, who made an early declaration showing she had 1.4 million euros ($1.84 million) in assets, mainly property.

Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, who is under fire for his handling of the Cahuzac affair, said on television his statement would show little more than his house in eastern France.

The asset list is part of a package of transparency measures Hollande unveiled on Wednesday, including the creation of a special prosecutor's office for major fraud.

An Opinionway survey found this week that 77 percent of respondents backed the asset inventory, but only a small minority thought it would prevent another Cahuzac-type scandal.

Some ministers have rushed to show they live frugally.

Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti said all she had was the 70 m2 Paris flat where she lives, while European Affairs Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said he was still paying the mortgage on his 500,000 euro apartment.

Meanwhile, Maverick far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon seized on a chance for mockery, issuing a statement listing two modest properties and 150,000 euros in savings but noting he had no yachts, horses or art. It also detailed his height, weight, shirt and shoe size and noted his hair was not dyed. ($1 = 0.7618 euros) (Additional reporting by John Irish; Editing by Mark John and Alison Williams)

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