By Hilary Barnes, Euro Politico Twitting:
When French Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac in the socialist government of President Francois Hollande resigned last year after having gotten caught with an undisclosed Swiss bank account containing some €600,000, there were plenty of people in France who looked forward to further revelations about the antics of their much-despised political elite.
They had good reason. It was known that the French government had got its hands on a list from HSBC Private Bank in Geneva with names of French account holders. The list, with a total of 127,000 names of foreign holders of accounts at the bank, was brought to France in December 2008 by Hervé Falciani, a technician who worked at the bank.
The Swiss police requested the French authorities to seize and return the list. But the French looked at it first and found that it included 8,993 French names, which was reduced to 6,313 after duplicates were eliminated. But that’s not what they said. Eric Worth, budget minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, said at the time that there were just 3,000 names of French “tax exiles” on the list.
Holding a foreign bank account is not illegal in France, but failing to disclose the fact is, and if it has been used to hide money from the tax authorities, it becomes a serious offence. Jérôme Cahuzac is facing charges of “tax fraud laundering”; he allegedly evaded taxes by putting money in accounts in Switzerland and Singapore, then bought legal assets with the money, and thus laundered his tax fraud.
But a few days ago, this twisted tale has taken a new turn.
The French authorities had duly returned the list to the Swiss, but had done so in January, 2010, almost a year after they had seized it. But on January 22, 2014, the Swiss financial newspaper L’Agefi reported that the Swiss police had examined the list and found that it had been tampered with.
The list was in a digital form which enabled the Swiss police to test the integrity of the file. They found that it had been falsified “by wilful manipulation for which the motive escapes us,” the police report said, according to L’Agefi, which has seen the police report.
Who tampered with the Falciani list and why? Apparently, the names were made to disappear because their public revelation would have been seriously embarrassing to France’s cherished political class.
On January 22, current budget minister, Mr Bernard Cazeneuve, denied the Swiss newspaper’s report, claiming on French radio that “all the elements of the investigation indicate that L’Agefi is wrong.”
Eric Worth was cited in Le Monde of the same day for saying: “How can anyone believe that a minister uses his eraser to delete this or that name? It’s time to stop pretending that we have the administration of a banana republic.”
The editor in chief of L’Agefi, Francois Schaller, replied that they did not accuse the minister of doing anything of the sort, but confirmed that the list had indeed been falsified by French authorities. “That means it is possible to suspect that the French regime from the Sarkozy period withdrew some names of potential tax fraud culprits from the list for reasons of domestic politics,” he said.
What makes it particularly intriguing, he added, is that since the socialists were returned to office with the election of President Hollande in May, 2012, nothing seems to have been done by the new masters of France to request the Swiss police to send them a new and complete list.
If the list was shortened by the deletion of 3,300 names under the Sarkozy regime, and his socialist successors are not anxious to acquire a copy of the complete list, it would indicate that there is a tacit understanding that this is a hornets’ nest that is best left undisturbed.
Mr Bruno Bertez, owner of the French financial newspaper La Tribune, and frequent commentator at L’Agefi, has no doubts. “That the socialists are trying to cover up and dissimulate the caviardage of the list is evident,” he said. Caviardage is a delicious French word for the act of removing those parts of a text that are inconvenient or embarrassing, a form of censorship.
The government has put cracking down on tax fraud near the top of its measures for reducing France’s large and persistent budget deficit. But this does not wash with Bertez, who explained the phenomenon this way: “Black money is not at the center of life for ordinary citizens of France, as the politicians would have the people believe, but it is at the center of life for politicians and their business contacts.”By Hilary Barnes, Euro Politico Twitting