France's one-time top tax-enforcer stands trial – on tax fraud charges

A former French budget minister who led the government’s fight against tax evasion has gone on trial – accused of hiding his wealth in tax havens around the world.

Jerome Cahuzac appeared in a Paris court today on charges of tax fraud and money laundering that saw him resign in 2013 in one of the biggest political scandals under the French president François Hollande.

The 64-year-old former cosmetic surgeon is accused of concealing at least €687,000 (Dh2.8 million) in income from tax authorities in 2009-2012. He’s also accused of laundering money in 2003-2013 through foreign bank accounts in Switzerland and Singapore and dummy companies in Panama and the Seychelles.

Mr Cahuzac, who acknowledged evading taxes for two decades, faces up to seven years in prison and a €1m fine if convicted.

The fraud helped him to finance a lavish lifestyle, such as expensive vacations, court documents show. Investigators discovered that he paid bills to one luxury hotel for a total of €127,000 for several stays with his ex-wife and their three children.

With the French presidential election eight months away, the trial is sure to revive voters’ memories of the scandal that tarnished Mr Hollande’s mandate just a few months after the socialist president was elected in 2012, promising higher taxes on the rich. Mr Hollande is widely expected to seek a second term next spring.

On trial today alongside Cahuzac are his former wife Patricia Menard; a banker; a legal adviser; and bank Reyl, a respectable but little-known Swiss establishment, all accused of money laundering.

Mr Cahuzac and Ms Menard entered the court on Monday without speaking to reporters and sat separately as the judge summarised the case. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Ms Menard is accused of hiding €2.5m from French tax authorities and laundering money in the British tax haven of the Isle of Man and in Switzerland, allowing her to buy two London apartments estimated at around €3m

The Cahuzac couple has already paid €2.3m in back taxes to French authorities.

The scandal was magnified by the fact that it involved France’s top tax-enforcement official and that as a minister Mr Cahuzac publicly lied to parliament and to the French people. French law does not sanction perjury.

When press reports first revealed the scandal in 2012, Mr Cahuzac was sponsoring a bill to reinforce the fight against tax evasion and fraud.

For months, Mr Cahuzac strongly denied any wrongdoing, even to Mr Hollande and government colleagues. He eventually admitted to the fraud in April 2013, saying he had been “trapped in a lying spiral”.

The Cahuzac scandal damaged Mr Hollande’s approval rating, which took a 13-point dive in the first quarter of 2013. It also had the effect of increasing public mistrust of politicians and fuelled demands for more transparency. The issues are often mentioned by the National Front far-right party.

On Monday, the Paris prosecutor’s office said it requested a criminal trial for the former president Nicolas Sarkozy over suspected illegal overspending on his failed 2012 re-election campaign. It is now up to the judges to decide whether Mr Sarkozy must stand trial.

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