PARIS: French President Francois Hollande was forced to defend himself as critics questioned how much he knew about a secret foreign bank account that belonged to a former minister facing tax fraud charges.
Jerome Cahuzac – the minister responsible for cracking down on tax evasion until he resigned two weeks ago – was charged on Tuesday with "laundering the proceeds of tax fraud" after he admitted to having a foreign bank account containing €600,000 ($741,000), following weeks of denials.
Mr Hollande appeared on national television on Wednesday to address the scandal, vowing a new law within weeks on the "publication and control" of the wealth of ministers and MPs.
He said he knew nothing of the foreign account and that Mr Cahuzac "did not benefit from any protection" from the government.
"He deceived the highest authorities in the country: the head of state, the head of the government, parliament, and through them all the French people," Mr Hollande said.
The scandal is the biggest political crisis for the president since he took power last year.
The president had been quick to condemn Mr Cahuzac's actions, but critics have pounced, saying top officials must have been either lying to protect the former minister or naive enough to believe him.
The head of the main opposition right-wing UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, demanded Mr Hollande explain the scandal to the French public.
Mr Cope said the President either "knew nothing, and that's extremely serious because it means he showed a certain amount of naivety" or "he knew and that means he lied to the French people".
"Who can believe that Francois Hollande and [Prime Minister] Jean-Marc Ayrault were aware of nothing?" Mr Cope asked on radio.
Opposition MPs have called for a parliamentary investigation and for the resignation of Mr Cahuzac's former boss, Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, said the entire government should resign and new parliamentary elections held.
France is disgusted and so am I. The president's statements were not at the level of the shock being felt.Former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin
"When we have this kind of situation of rupture, the people must be able to express themselves," she said. "This abscess must be drained by new elections."
Mr Hollande had promised a government of unimpeachable morals, and the scandal is likely to further damage the standing of the President, who is languishing in opinion polls less than a year into his five-year term.
Former UMP prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said Mr Hollande's promises of reforms had not been enough to tackle the scandal.
"France is disgusted and so am I. The president's statements were not at the level of the shock being felt," he said.
A Harris Interactive/LCP opinion poll released on Wednesday showed 59 per cent of respondents thought Mr Hollande and the government had handled the scandal either "badly" or "very badly".