French budget minister Jerome Cahuzac resigned
Tuesday evening to fight allegations of tax evasion that had begun to
cloud Francois Hollande's Socialist government.
Cahuzac's resignation came hot on the heels of the announcement by the Paris prosecutor's office that the minister faced a formal inquiry over reports he had a secret Swiss bank account until 2010.
In a short statement Tuesday evening, the presidency said that Hollande had "terminated the functions of Mr Jerome Cahuzac ...at his request" and named former junior minister for European Affairs, Bernard Cazeneuve in his place.
Cahuzac said in a separate statement that stressed his "innocence" he was resigning "for the good functioning" of the government.
The speed with which he stepped down was seen as a sign that the so-called Cahuzac affair was becoming toxic for the government.
Three hours earlier the Paris prosecutor's office announced it had requested that investigating magistrates be appointed to the case after a preliminary probe concluded that a man heard discussing a Swiss account on a recording was probably Cahuzac.
"Three witnesses, to whom investigators played the recording, said they recognized the voice of Mr Jerome Cahuzac and another 'intonations of his voice'," the prosecutors said in a statement.
Cahuzac, a 60-year-old former plastic surgeon, has repeatedly denied being the owner of the voice in the recording which dates to 2000 and which was first published by Mediapart investigative news site in December.
He has not yet been charged with any offence.
"I don't have, I never have had, accounts abroad," he told parliament last year - a claim backed by Swiss authorities, who said they could find no trace of such an account.
But Mediapart had stuck by its claim that Cahuzac stashed money at Switzerland's UBS bank for years until becoming head of parliament's finance commission in 2010, whereupon he transferred the money to Singapore.
The prosecutor's office said a full inquiry would allow France to enlist the cooperation of authorities in both Switzerland and Singapore.
Apart from the allegations of tax evasion, the investigating magistrates will also examine allegations that the purported account was used to receive payments from pharmaceutical companies.
The affair had been seen as potentially explosive for Hollande, whose approval ratings have nosedived since his election last May.
His government has slammed wealthy French citizens who move their money abroad for tax purposes as "unpatriotic."
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