PARIS Budget Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said French taxpayers holding bank accounts abroad must make them known to authorities now or face much tougher penalties for tax evasion, as France seeks to end years of lax oversight.
The Socialist government, in line with European partners, is leading a crackdown on tax avoidance that deprives the state of up to 50 billion euros ($64.6 billion) in revenue annually, according to a Senate commission report published last year.
Parliament will start in June to debate a draft law reinforcing tax oversight that foresees tougher penalties for evaders including stiffer prison sentences, which can last up to seven years for the worst offenders.
"I call on all those who have bank accounts abroad to abide by the law now by getting in touch with tax authorities," Cazeneuve told Europe 1 radio on Sunday. "If they refuse to respect the law, they will face much harsher penalties."
President Francois Hollande has hardened his approach to tax evasion after former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac admitted in March to holding a Swiss bank account, despite repeated public denials he was avoiding taxes. Cazeneuve is his successor.
The episode rattled a Socialist government that vowed to "restore fiscal justice" in France by imposing a 75-percent tax on revenues exceeding 1 million euros per year - a plan significantly watered after censure by a Constitutional Court.
France, where citizens pay their own income tax at the end of the fiscal cycle, rather than having it taken out of their salary, struggles with evasion due to its high levies and the ease of placing money in nearby tax havens.
The French unit of Swiss bank UBS could be placed under formal investigation in the coming days as part of a probe into whether it offered potential clients products designed to cheat the taxman, a source told Reuters on Friday.
Three UBS France executives have been under investigation in relation to that probe, a judicial source told Reuters in April.
Meanwhile France has contacted Swiss authorities for help in determining whether 353 prospective UBS clients had undeclared assets in Switzerland.
Separately, France has opened a probe into whether British bank HSBC offered illicit products to help French clients avoid tax in Switzerland, the Paris prosecutors' office said last month.
($1 = 0.7734 euros)
(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur and Chine Labbe; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford)