After the Cahuzac scandal, the Hollande presidency is in tatters

France's Socialist president has failed to deliver - and in record time.

Barely ten months after his election, François Hollande is a lame duck President. He is even more unpopular than Nicolas Sarkozy was at the same stage of the presidency. The French people elected him in May 2012 because they had had enough with Sarkozy’s right-wing politics which deeply divided the nation. They wanted change. Hollande’s austerity policies and his alignment on Angela Merkel’s positions in Europe have dramatically failed to make a difference so far.The majority of the population even feels that there is a troubling continuity with Sarkozysm on major policy areas such as employment, pensions, benefits, wages, not to mention the neo-colonial war waged by French troops in Mali.

Now, the Hollande presidency is in tatters. A state scandal is threatening to engulf Hollande and the Socialist government. The person responsible for the crisis is Jérôme Cahuzac, who was the Budget Minister until two weeks ago. For the past few months, Cahuzac had been accused of having used a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying taxes in France. Those allegations were made by Mediapart, an investigative website run by Edwy Plenel, a former editor-in-chief for Le Monde newspaper. The accusations were repeatedly denied by Cahuzac before the President, the Prime Minister,the members of parliament and various media. On 2 April, Cahuzac suddenly admitted to a judge that he hid €600,000 (£510,000) offshore for over twenty years. He was immediately placed under formal investigation for laundering the proceeds of tax fraud by French justice. Hollande appeared on national television the next day and said that Cahuzac’s actions were an "unforgivable moral error".

This dramatic development could not have happened at a worst time for a beleaguered President, nor could the trouble have come from one of the most sensitive departments in government. Indeed, as Budget Minister, Cahuzac was the man in charge of fighting tax evasion. He was also responsible for leading a crusade against tax heavens on behalf of the French State. He had the task of streamlining the budget and running the government’s crackdown on rich people who would be made to pay more taxes. When two weeks ago Cahuzac resigned, Hollande applauded his decision to "better defend his honour". For Hollande and Jean-Marc Ayrault – Hollande’s Prime Minister – it is a no-win situation. If they now acknowledge that they had misgivings about Cahuzac’s probity, they would be held responsible. Thus, they can only claim that they knew nothing about the scandal. In the best case scenario, the executive comes across as weak and indecisive.

Hollande, Ayrault and Socialist members of parliament have tried hard to downplay the whole Cahuzac episode. They argue that it is a personal betrayal and the story only poses a "moral issue". In truth, the Cahuzac scandal has only marginally to do with the dishonesty of a man. It is much more than the sad personification of the "bastard" as defined by Jean-Paul Sartre. No, the Cahuzac swindle also exposes political manipulations and lies at the heart of the Hollande presidency. It truly is a state scandal which creates a political crisis whose political ramifications will be multiple and hard to predict.

Who is Jérôme Cahuzac? This 60 year-old man was a cardiologist who became a plastic surgeon specialising in hair transplants. In this new profession, the disgraced minister amassed a large personal fortune. Cahuzac comes from the self-professed neoliberal/Blairite wing of the Socialist Party. In a recent television debate with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Left Front, he haughtily conceded that never in his thirty-year long career in the Socialist Party, he had "believed in class struggle". When Ayrault appointed him to the government, several party officials warned the Prime Minister that this was a hazardous decision. Arrogant and briskwith his colleagues, Cahuzac belongs to a breed of "Socialists" that ignores virtually everything of the travails of the electorate who brought Hollande to power last year. What is more, Cahuzac was in government the zealous promoter of the harshest austerity policies that France has ever experienced since the end of the Second World War. Here is a man who not only lectured the public about fraud evasion while being a fraudster himself, but who was also responsible for implementing and monitoring unfair and pointless economic policies – such as his target of reducing France’s public deficit to 3 per cent - which inflicted unnecessary suffering on the worst off in society.

Until the New York sex scandal which put an end to his political career, Cahuzac was a "Strausskahnian", i.e. a close and devoted political ally of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The two "Socialists" shared the same lavish and insouciant lifestyle and the same taste for laissez-faire economics. Both men were friendly with the rich and powerful and bothentertained dubious relationships in the political world. Mediapart has revealed that Philippe Péninque was the person who discretely opened Cahuzac’s bank account in Switzerland in 1992. Péninque used to be a member of Groupe Union Défense (GUD), a violent student union on the extreme right. He is currently a close friend and confident of Marine Le Pen.

Hollande’s responsibility is here clearly engaged as it should have been clear from the start that Cahuzac’s appointment was politically hazardous. A cabinet minister recently revealed that Cahuzac was responsible for messing up the handling of the tax bill on very high earners - the "75 per cent tax" on people earning over €1 million. Warned that some provisions in the bill might be censored by the Constitutional Council, Cahuzac opted to go ahead with it. The bill indeed ended up being censored by the French Supreme Court. Only days ago, Cahuzac was still presented in Socialist circles as the paragon of "good governance" and as a ‘competent and brilliant minister’. How was it possible to appoint such a man to a Socialist cabinet in the first place?

One may put the question to Pierre Moscovici, the Minister of Finance. After Cahuzac’s exit, Moscovici is the last "Strausskahnian" left in government. One of the rare Blair admirers in France, Moscovici now stands accused by Mediapart of having used the State apparatus to try to whitewash his political friend. Weeks ago, Moscovici declared that he had inquired to the Swiss banking institutions about Cahuzac’s secret account and that he was satisfied that no such account existed.

The Cahuzac scandal is well and truly essentially a political scandal. This episode involves a caste of politicians who have completely let down the people who elected them. Some thought that they were untouchable. After ten months in office, this Socialist government has already turned its back on the needs and aspirations of the working people.

Philippe Marlière is professor of French politics at University College London. He tweets @PhMarliere

The French president François Hollande (2nd left), followed by prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and the former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac. (Photo: Getty.)
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle