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Tax-dodging scandal embroils France

PARIS — For a president who came to power promising “irreproachability,” naming a ­lying tax-dodger to be chief tax collector was not the best move.

Now Francois Hollande is on the ropes, reeling from a blow delivered by his former budget minister, a man who admitted this week that he hid hundreds of thousands of euros from the tax man for decades and lied about it.

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The lies by Jerome Cahuzac came before the National Assembly and to Hollande’s face.

Worst of all for Hollande was that he billed his presidency as a return to morality and simplicity after what his Socialist Party dubbed the “bling-bling” years of his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. Now Hollande has handed Sarkozy’s opposition UMP party the club it needs to bash him and his Socialist government for the rest of his presidency.

Not that the UMP was waiting. They have been mercilessly haranguing Hollande and the Socialists for economic mismanagement after the government admitted it would not be able to trim the deficit as far as it had pledged.

Cutting that deficit by cracking down on tax-dodgers was part of Cahuzac’s job as Hollande’s budget minister.

That makes his surprise admission of a once-secret Swiss bank account — after months of denying its existence — embarrassing not only for him but for Hollande’s entire Cabinet. Many government ministers had taken to the airwaves to swear to Cahuzac’s trustworthiness after the muckraking website Mediapart reported his secret in December.

Hollande made an unusual television appearance Wednesday to respond. Shaking his fist to appear forceful, Hollande called Cahuzac’s actions “unpardonable” and “an outrage to the Republic.” At the same time Hollande tried to deflect the blowback the scandal is causing his government with a reference to ‘‘the failure of one man.’’

Hollande sought to get ahead of the scandal by announcing reforms — including banning convicted fraudsters from public office and requiring all government ministers and members of Parliament to publish their personal finances.

It is not clear yet whether that will help. Hollande is among the least popular presidents in modern French history after less than a year in office. Recent opinion polls give him an approval rating of barely more than 30 percent.

Journalist Edwy Plenel said what makes the Cahuzac scandal so threatening to the country’s democratic traditions ‘‘is the attitude of the whole political class,’’ which he said had rallied behind Cahuzac.

“His admission reveals to the French citizens the inadequacy of the majority of that world,” Plenel said.

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