French 'tax tsar' turned political pariah Jérôme Cahuzac back in court for appeal
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France’s disgraced former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac was back in court Monday, contesting his three-year prison sentence for tax fraud. The mandatory custodial sentence, handed down in 2016, is relatively rare for a convicted French politician.
A plastic surgeon by trade and the man former president François Hollande had initially charged with leading his government’s fight against tax fraud, Cahuzac was found guilty of tax fraud and money laundering in December 2016 for having concealed bank accounts abroad for two decades. He was also barred from holding public office for five years.
As proceedings began in Paris on Monday, the judge asked Cahuzac why he was appealing the 2016 decision. “My feeling is fairly banal, fear. Fear of going to prison, like anyone else, I imagine,” he replied. Saying he admits to committing the offences alleged, Cahuzac added, “I decided to file an appeal thinking primarily of those close to me.”
The investigative journalism website Mediapart broke the story in December 2012, seven months into Hollande’s fledgling term, prefacing a scandal from which the chronically unpopular Socialist leader would arguably never fully recover. Cahuzac, for his part, strenuously denied the allegations, even lying at the mic on the floor of France’s lower-house National Assembly. The doctor-turned-politician finally resigned from Hollande’s cabinet in March.
At trial in 2016, the French national prosecutor’s office for financial offences, a specialised service created in the scandal’s aftermath, demanded a “severe” sentence for a man it said had “sullied the honour” of France. In his ruling, the judge followed suit, arguing that only a custodial sentence for the former cabinet minister could adequately punish an error “of exceptional gravity”.
Cahuzac’s wife, Patricia, a fellow doctor with whom he had launched a successful hair transplant clinic, was also convicted and sentenced to two years in jail – a term length that does not carry the same custodial obligation as her now-ex-husband’s three-year sentence does in France; she has declined to appeal. The couple’s hidden funds, dissembled in Switzerland, Singapore, and on the Isle of Man, amounted to an estimated €3.5 million.
Reyl & Cie, the Swiss bank said to have organised transfers for the couple through opaque offshore firms in Panama and the Seychelles, was fined nearly €1.9 million for its role. François Reyl, the bank’s director general, was handed a one-year suspended sentence and fined €375,000 for money laundering.
“The appeal is about the right punishment; we aren’t asking for an acquittal,” Jean Veil, Cahuzac’s lawyer, told Europe 1 radio on the day the verdict came down in 2016.
Still, heading back to court leaves Cahuzac susceptible to an even heavier punishment, although reports vary on its maximum possible severity. A potential five-year sentence and €375,000 fine is back on the table, according to Agence France-Presse, while Reuters, citing a judicial source, puts the risk at seven years behind bars. Neither of the Cahuzacs were fined in 2016 since they had paid a €2.5 million supplement when their taxes were reassessed.
For his appeal, which begins Monday and is scheduled to run over six days through February 21, the 65-year-old ex-minister has hired one of Paris’s highest profile lawyers. Eric Dupond-Moretti recently defended Abdelkader Merah, whose terrorist brother Mohamed killed three soldiers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi in a series of attacks in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012.
The so-called Cahuzac Affair elicited a series of reforms geared towards greater transparency for public office holders and battling tax evasion, including a national anti-corruption agency and the specialised prosecutor’s office for the most complex financial cases. In light of that response, Transparency France, an independent watchdog, said the Cahuzac scandal had served as “beneficial shock therapy”.
Tax fraud costs French coffers €40 to 80 billion every year, according to government estimates.