French PM joins minister aboard 'Air Dictator' scandal
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French political discourse has been hijacked by the latest episode of a scandal that saw PM François Fillon admitting to an Egyptian-government sponsored vacation just days after the foreign minister apologised for her holiday folly.
For a country that takes vacations hyper seriously, its top ministers seem to have a serious problem figuring how to vacation ethically, not to mention understanding that junkets sponsored by Arab dictators or their cronies may be, well, moralement discutable.
First, it was French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie using the private jet of a businessman with close links to Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali during a Christmas vacation to the tourist-friendly North African nation with her husband, Patrick Ollier, who also happens to be a government minister.
This was in late December, just two weeks before the Tunisian president fled the country while ordinary Tunisians, incensed with the rampant corruption and cronyism of the Ben Ali regime, were protesting on the streets.
Now it’s the turn of French Prime Minister François Fillon, who acknowledged Tuesday that the Egyptian government had offered his family free lodging, a plane flight and a boat cruise on the Nile during a New Year’s vacation in Egypt, where 300 people have been killed in massive street protests seeking to oust President Hosni Mubarak.
Fillon’s involvement in the air travel scandal – or "balades en avion", as the French are calling it – threatens to hijack Nicolas Sarkozy’s primetime interview Thursday, when the French president will take questions from ordinary French citizens.
After days of deafening silence, Sarkozy stepped into the controversy on Wednesday, urging cabinet ministers to prefer France for their holidays or, when invited abroad, to seek prior approval from the presidency and the prime minister – the very man who has been caught up in the scandal.
The involvement of the popular, low-key prime minister has sparked trenchant criticism from the opposition, with the Green Party releasing a statement that wondered how many other ministers had "used the services of the 'Air Dictator' for their holidays in the sun."
The satirical weekly at the heart of the air travel scandals
The scandal has been dominating headlines in France’s lively press this week, with the left-leaning daily Libération's headline proclaiming “MAM (Michele Alliot-Marie) and Fillon in business class”.
The satirical weekly at the heart of the travel scandal, Le Canard Enchaine, devoted its Wednesday front page to the scandal.
Fillon’s Tuesday afternoon admission came when his office realized that the satirical weekly famed for its focus on French political scandals was about to publish a scoop on the Fillon family vacation, which took place from December 26 to January 2 at a Nile resort in Aswan.
"The prime minister was lodged during this visit by the Egyptian authorities," said a statement released Tuesday by Matignon, the prime minister’s office.
The statement stressed that Fillon met Mubarak in Aswan on December 30, nearly a month before anti-government protests kicked off in Egypt on January 25. It added that the prime minister was making this information public "in the interest of transparency".
MAM blunders again – and again
When he was elected president in 2007, Sarkozy promised to break France’s “networks of a bygone era,” a reference to what the French call “françafrique,” referring to the web of contacts linking African leaders and businessmen to French political parties and presidents - from both sides of the political spectrum.
As Tunisia’s largest trading partner and former colonial power, Paris has a complex relationship with Tunisia - which is closely watched by the 600,000-odd Tunisians living in France.
Even before revelations of her Tunisian vacation made headlines, Alliot-Marie - or MAM as she is popularly called - faced criticism for offering French know-how on crowd control measures to Tunisian security officials battling unarmed protesters.
She later retracted her comments and admitted she had misspoken.
The French foreign minister’s handling of the latest travel scandal has been even shoddier. In an interview with FRANCE 24 over the weekend, Alliot-Marie said, “I’ve done nothing that is politically reprehensible.” She insisted that while she was on vacation she was “no longer the foreign affairs minister” - only to backtrack and later declare, “It’s true that one is a minister 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.”
Fillon’s vacation, on the other hand, looks to be less incendiary, according to FRANCE 24 French politics editor Marc Perelman.
“In MAM’s case, the trips she took were on planes owned by a private person. In François Fillon’s case, it’s the Egyptian government,” noted Perelman. “Secondly, MAM was in Tunisia when the troubles started, while François Fillon was in Egypt three weeks before the events there got under way. His office is maintaining that there is nothing wrong with accepting a government invitation. It’s not illegal, but of course given the current context, it’s a problem for the administration.”
'Le president bling-bling' restricts vacations to France
While it may be a problem for his administration, the French president has been resolute in support for his ministers, dismissing opposition calls for Alliot-Marie’s resignation.
“Sarkozy has tried to make his ministers irreproachable. They are not. And they don’t get fired for that, which is even more surprising,” said Bloomberg’s Helene Fouquet in an interview with FRANCE 24 before the Fillon scandal broke.
On Wednesday, Sarkozy told a cabinet meeting that “members of the government must prefer France for their holidays," before adding, "Invitations accepted abroad will be authorised by the prime minister and the presidential diplomatic unit... to see whether they are compatible with France's foreign policy."
But the French president does not have a particularly strong track record when it comes to luxurious favours from the rich. Dubbed “le président bling-bling” by the French for his penchant for a nouveau riche lifestyle, Sarkozy faced criticism shortly after his 2007 election victory for vacationing on a billionaire tycoon’s yacht off Malta.
The French president cracked down on an expenses scandal last year, when then-Minister for Cooperation Alain Joyandet was forced to resign after spending 116,500 euros of taxpayers' money to charter a private jet.
Another French politician, Christian Blanc, resigned from government after it was revealed that he used 12,000 euros of his ministerial budget to pay for cigars over a ten-month period.
The Blanc scandal was resolved after Fillon intervened to insist that the politician pay back his cigar fund in full.
This time though, the so-far squeaky clean prime minister finds himself ensnared in a mess.
The problem, according to some observers, is a particularly French way of doing political business. They say France has not caught up with the US, Scandinavian nations, and other West European countries such as the UK, where an expenses scandal rocked parliament last year.
“In France, the French elite have not yet been integrated with the 2.0 version of what represents a conflict of interest, what is a decent behaviour for a minister,” said Fouquet. “There’s still a sense of the old regime in France, where the elites go for splashy holidays - that has not gone yet.”