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France

The surgeon-turned-minister who fooled France

© AFP

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2013-04-05

Before building a reputation as an honest and rigorous politician, France’s disgraced budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, made a fortune snuggling up to pharmaceutical giants and balding politicians. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.

Jérôme Cahuzac once compared having a Swiss bank account with taking a pregnancy test. “It’s either there or it’s not – there’s no inbetween,” he told a reporter from French daily Libération in February. “Do you think I’d still be in office if there was the slightest chance I had one?”

Two months later, Cahuzac’s carefully concealed “pregnancy”, or 600,000 euro offshore bank account, has come out screaming. Described by the French press as “one of the most spectacular scandals” the country has seen for decades, Cahuzac’s admission of guilt – after four months of public denial – has left the nation dumbfounded, and his Socialist Party colleagues devastated.

Cahuzac was deemed a tough-talking, earnest politician who prided himself on honesty. His staggering fall from grace has got everybody in France wondering, who is the Socialist minister who duped the nation?

Spinning hair into money

A discreet, respected figure among the Socialists, Cahuzac remained largely unknown to the general public until very recently, save for an incident in 2011 when he slapped an ill-spoken 20-year-old and told him to “show some respect”. It was only in 2012, during François Hollande’s presidential campaign, that Cahuzac became a household name. Invited to speak on a primetime political TV show, he failed to mask his alarm when questioned about Hollande’s controversial 75% millionaire tax. Since then, he has been best known, ironically, for his labours to crack down on tax evasion.

Cahuzac’s political ambitions emerged late in life. Trained in medicine, he began his career as a cardiologist after studying in Paris in the late 1970s – an era he described as “one long party”. Consequently, Cahuzac campaigned against the excessive consumption of alcohol and nicotine, a cause which would lead him, years later, to help draft government legislation banning tobacco smoking in public places.

In the early 1990s, Cahuzac entered the world of cosmetic surgery alongside his well-to-do wife, dermatologist Patricia. The couple opened a hair transplant practice off the Champs-Elysées in Paris, welcoming the balding rich and famous: among them, the political elite. Cahuzac is said to have made political contacts through his influential clientele. He also made a substantial amount of money – in 1994, Cahuzac and his wife bought a 200-square-metre apartment on one of the most expensive avenues of Paris. But Cahuzac complained of “working very hard” and suffering from long hours.

Pharmaceutical sweeteners?

Before opening the clinic, Cahuzac worked as a consultant for the Ministry of Health, dealing specifically with the powerful pharmaceutical industry. Shortly afterwards, pharmaceutical giants Fabre and Upsa hired Cahuzac as a consultant themselves, paying him a total of 900,000 euros over a four-year period. They also went on to generously sponsor sports centres in the region of Villeneuve-sur-Lot the following decade, where Cahuzac served as mayor.

Cahuzac did not only befriend pharmaceutical companies. A keen golfer, he found a sporting companion in Philippe Péninque, a close adviser and friend to National Front leader Marine Le Pen. According to French daily Le Monde, it was Péninque who opened Cahuzac’s infamous UBS account in Geneva in 1992.

In an interview with Le Figaro last September, Cahuzac acknowledged “earning a good living” and said that he “had never felt ashamed of it”. But when his new 300-square-metre Parisian home was burgled a few weeks later, Cahuzac attempted to stifle press reports detailing the size of his apartment and the list of stolen goods (which included eight Rolex, Jaeger-Lecoultre, Boucheron, Chaumet and Breitling watches, worth more than 10,000 euros each).

Champagne Socialist

Despite Cahuzac’s impressive fortune (he was one of only four Socialist ministers to pay tax on his wealth), sources close to him told Le Monde that he often complained of “having lost all [his] money to politics”. Following his separation from Patricia Cahuzac in 2011, he fought a fierce battle for their home and clinic (leading some to believe she could be responsible for the leak to Mediapart, the investigative website which brought about his downfall).

Cahuzac was often ridiculed by the rightwing as a “Champagne Socialist,” and faced criticism from his own party members for alleged sexism. Both sides agreed that he was arrogant. But he was praised by leaders across the political spectrum for running a tight ship as budget minister. When Mediapart revealed his offshore savings account in December, even his political rivals took his defence, dismissing the website’s accusations as false.

Interestingly, one of those most keen to defend Cahuzac was rightwing UMP leader Jean-François Copé. The day after the allegations emerged, he publicly expressed his “personal respect” for Cahuzac. Copé went on to describe the then budget minister – in what today seems like a case of comic sarcasm or an inside joke – as “one of the rare ministers who, we can all agree, really knows what he is talking about”.

Now charged with fraud for committing the very crime he was tasked with cracking down on, Cahuzac faces up to five years in prison and a 375,000 euro fine.

Date created : 2013-04-04

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