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French PM Philippe defends €350,000 private flight

Philippe Lopez, AFP | French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe speaks during the MoDem (Democratic Movement) party congress on December 16, 2017 in Paris.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe defended on Wednesday his decision to charter a private aircraft at a cost of 350,000 euros ($415,000) to bring him and a delegation back from Tokyo earlier this month.

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AFP disclosed late Tuesday that Philippe's office had hired an Airbus A340 with first-class seats to fly from Japan to Paris on December 6 instead of using an A340 army transport plane flying the same route at roughly the same time.

The prime minister's office has argued that Philippe needed to be back in Paris urgently because President Emmanuel Macron was leaving the country and that the air force plane was too uncomfortable for a night flight.

"It's complicated to move the prime minister around and it's expensive," Philippe told RTL radio on Wednesday. "I understand both the surprise and the questions that French people are asking themselves."

Asked if it had been a mistake, he replied: "I take responsibility for this decision completely, I take responsibility to such an extent that I want to explain it."

Philippe was returning from the far-flung French Pacific territory of New Caledonia on December 5 along with a 60-strong delegation of officials and ministers.

For the first leg of the journey from Noumea to Tokyo, they used the air force plane.

But instead of continuing on board this aircraft to Paris, his office hired the private A340 to complete their journey and arrived home two hours before the army plane which landed in Paris almost empty.

"We knew that there wasn't a commercial flight at that time and that we needed to get back. We knew we needed to get back for something vital which is that the president was leaving on the Wednesday morning of our return," Philippe added.

He explained that the requirements of his job meant that moving around was expensive but that he did everything possible to keep a lid on costs.

"If you had invited Edouard Philippe, I would have come in the metro which would have cost me 1.90 or 2 euros. But... I arrived with four vehicles, motorbikes, 15 people, and a doctor and a transmitter, who stay with me because these are the resources given to a prime minister to enable him to work at all times," he added.

His office pointed out that the trip cost 30% less than the similar trip taken by Prime Minister Manuel Valls in 2016.

This did not quash the criticisms of politicians on the right and the left. Ex-minister of agriculture Stéphane Le Foll (Socialist Party) tweeted that "nothing can explain spending 350,000 euros... The Republic's planes are very good. There's no need to take private planes just so that you can sleep better."

The criticism followed similar rebukes this month of Macron's 40th birthday celebrations in the grounds of a royal palace, which Macron's office sought to play down, saying the event had been paid for by Macron and his wife.

Macron put financial and ethical probity in public life at the heart of his presidential campaign and his new government passed a law earlier this year to tighten up on ethical standards in French politics.

However, some of Macron's political opponents have branded the former investment banker as a "president of the rich" due to policies such as the scrapping of a wealth tax and cutting housing benefit - moves which the president has framed as reforms to boost investment and social mobility.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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