PARIS (Reuters) - France's erstwhile budget minister admitted on Tuesday to holding a secret 600,000-euro foreign bank account and he was placed under a fraud investigation in a grave blow to President Francois Hollande's 10-month-old government.
Jerome Cahuzac's surprise reversal after months of denying allegations he held a Swiss account deeply embarrassed Hollande, who had promised an irreproachable team of ministers and is battling to uphold France's fiscal credibility in the eyes of foreign investors.
Cahuzac, who until he resigned two weeks ago was in charge of French finances, acknowledged having the undeclared foreign account and his lawyer said he had been put under formal investigation.
If charged as a result of the investigation and found guilty in court, Cahuzac, a former plastic surgeon, faces up to five years in prison and a 375,000 euro ($481,400) fine.
As opposition politicians leapt to condemn the ruling Socialist Party, Hollande said Cahuzac had committed an "unpardonable moral error" by denying the existence of the account for so long.
Hollande is struggling with crumbling approval ratings over his failure to pull the economy out of stagnation as well as a tarnished international image after admitting he will miss 2013 growth and deficit targets. Many have scorned his plan for a 75 percent tax on million-euro incomes.
"This marks the definitive end of the moral left that likes to give lessons," said Jean-Francois Cope, head of the conservative UMP that Hollande ousted from power last May, adding it was hard to believe the president was in the dark.
"Francois Hollande said his would be an exemplary Republic. What credit can we now accord his governmental team?"
SPIRAL OF LIES
Cahuzac quit his post in mid-March on Hollande's order just minutes after news that prosecutors had begun investigating accusations by investigative news website Mediapart that he held a secret bank account in Switzerland.
An amateur boxer, Cahuzac wrote in his blog on Tuesday that he had been tormented by an internal conflict between telling the truth and his duty to fulfill his ministerial obligations.
"I was caught in a spiral of lies and I did wrong. I am devastated with remorse," he said. "To think I could avoid facing up to a past I wanted to regard as over was an unspeakable error."
Cahuzac said he had confirmed to investigating magistrates that an account existed although he had not deposited any money there for some 12 years. He said he had given instructions for the funds in it to be moved to his account in Paris.
He said he had had the foreign bank account for some 20 years, although he did not specify which country it was in.
Socialists expressed their regret. Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg said he was stunned and Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti said Cahuzac should quit politics for good.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who has also seen his ratings slide in opinion polls over perceptions he is a weak team leader, said Cahuzac had lied to the entire government.
"Jerome Cahuzac lied up until the end," he told France 2 television during the evening news. "When (he) told the National Assembly he never had an account, not today, not in the past, it was a solemn moment. Why would we not have believed him?" ($1 = 0.7789 euros)
(Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Ingrid Melander; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)