The resignation of France’s budget minister is a major blow to François Hollande’s Socialist government, which is struggling to get the country out of the red.
Jérôme Cahuzac’s resignation as the French budget minister made headlines in France on Wednesday, shining a spotlight on an important but –until now– little known member of President François Hollande’s inner circle.
Cahuzac, 60, a former mayor and French MP with a long track record with the Socialist Party, stepped down on Tuesday after judges opened an inquiry into allegations he held a secret Swiss bank account.
The claims have given new ammunition to the conservative opposition UMP party, which tabled a vote of no confidence in the government at the National Assembly on Wednesday.
The motion, planned even before Cahuzac dramatically stepped down, had virtually no chance of passing the Socialist-controlled chamber.
A victim of the pesky investigative press
While Cahuzac’s resignation caught the French off-guard, the allegations have been festering since December.
The claim he stashed money away until 2010 was made by Mediapart, a subscription-based news website known for its investigative reports.
Launched by a former Le Monde editor in 2008, Mediapart honed its craft with stinging reports often targeting the right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Cahuzac has denied Mediapart’s allegations, telling reporters in December that the final outcome of the affair would either ruin him or the news group.
The left-leaning daily Libération said Hollande had no choice but to accept Cahuzac’s resignation, though maintaining that “there was no concrete evidence” the former minister ever had an illegal Swiss bank account.
Le Parisien daily said Mediapart, for now, could boast of having the upper hand in an article titled “Mediapart: 1 – Cahuzac: 0”.
“Until now he has been used to winning his fights. This time, Cahuzac has chosen to abandon the political boxing ring to prove his innocence,” the newspaper wrote.
Avoiding a ‘political catastrophe’
The French media have pointed out that the ministerial exit represents a double blow for Hollande, who will likely face embarrassing questions over the affair, and has lost a competent ally tasked with whipping the country’s finances into shape.
The right-leaning Le Figaro, which routinely criticises Hollande, said the president had lost a “major chess piece” with Cahuzac’s departure.
It showed sympathy for Cahuzac, who opposed the president’s failed bid to tax France’s top earners at a 75% rate. Hollande has introduced a series of tax hikes and cuts to deliver on his promise to balance France’s budget by the end of his term in 2017.
“Resigning is a personal tragedy if one is innocent. But staying on would have been a political catastrophe, whether he is guilty or not,” Le Figaro noted.
Bernard Cazeneuve, who was until Tuesday a junior minister in charge of European affairs for Hollande, will replace Cahuzac at the Finance Ministry.
“One can’t replace Jérôme Cahuzac, only succeed him,” Cazaneuve told RTL radio on Wednesday, admitting he lacked his predecessor’s “fine-tuned knowledge” of the French budget.