Lobster and champagne: French minister in hot water for living the lavish life on public funds
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France's energy and ecology minister, François de Rugy, is in hot water after French media revealed he spent taxpayer money on lavish dinners and renovations to his official residence. The government has announced an inquiry into the matter.
Everyone needs to relax after a hard day in the office. Why not enjoy a little champagne and a lobster dinner with some friends? When the gilt furniture looks a little less golden and the chandeliers a little less luminous, who wouldn’t want to do a little home refurbishment? Best of all, get the taxpayer to foot the bill.
François de Rugy, former president of the National Assembly (the lower house of parliament) and currently the minister of energy and ecology, is the latest French politician to find himself embroiled in a corruption scandal.
In an article published on July 10, investigative website Mediapart describes de Rugy and his wife, a journalist at celebrity magazine Gala, as “living like royals on public funds” and inviting friends to “sumptuous receptions” in the Hôtel de Lassay, the official residence of the National Assembly president, or parliament speaker.
Mediapart claimed there were more than 10 dinners of this kind held between October 2017 and June 2018. According to the website, staff served bottles of vintage wines and champagnes taken from parliamentary cellars to guests who were mainly personal friends of the couple.
Photographs showed de Rugy's wife Severine Servat-de Rugy in front of bottles of grand cru wine and platters lined with lobsters.
Speaking in an interview on French TV channel BFM on Friday, however, de Rugy insisted he has “never paid more than €30 for a bottle of wine”, doesn’t eat lobster because of a “shellfish allergy”, and avoids champagne, as it “gives him a headache”.
‘Grotesque’ smear campaign
After the Mediapart revelations, the story was quickly picked up by other French media outlets. De Rugy attempted to get ahead of the scandal by going on France Inter radio that very same day, dismissing the article as nothing more than a “grotesque” smear campaign.
According to him, the receptions were justified expenses, part of his working life. They allowed him to meet with representatives from different sectors, he said, “some of whom we knew, others we did not”.
De Rugy acknowledged that his wife had participated in organising the dinners and selecting the guests, but he refused to accept that the pair had done anything wrong.
“We have nothing to reproach ourselves for, neither she nor I,” he said.
He also offered a longer explanation in a July 10 Facebook post. But the tone remained determinedly defensive and unapologetic, which has only increased media attention of the matter.
Mediapart added fuel to the fire on Wednesday evening when it published new revelations, this time about de Rugy’s chief of staff, Nicole Klein. Klein had allegedly been holding on to a council flat in Paris since 2001, even though she hadn't lived in the capital full-time since 2006. She said she regularly used the apartment when she returned for the weekend, keeping it out of "ease and negligence".
De Rugy immediately demanded that she step down and she reluctantly complied, "at the request of François de Rugy.”
On July 11, Mediapart published a follow-up article and photographs, revealing that after de Rugy and his wife moved into his official ministerial apartment, they spent more than €63,000 on refurbishments.
The renovations included a brand-new dressing room for a somewhat exorbitant €17,000 in taxpayer money.
When asked by Mediapart about the cost of the dressing room, Servat-de Rugy did not have a direct answer. "It's not really a dressing room, it is just wardrobes. And when we arrived, there were none, nothing. I don't know what to tell you," she said.
It was further revealed that the work was predominantly decorative rather than essential.
The minister’s office justified the cost of the work saying de Rugy had to use “qualified craftsmen” due to “the particular character of the building”, an 18th-century edifice in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.
Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said Wednesday that de Rugy is "obviously" still trusted by President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. However, de Rugy was summoned for a meeting with Philippe on Thursday afternoon.
A green activist who rose to the top
It is the first time de Rugy's glittering career has faced such scandal.
De Rugy, 44, is a long-time politician and environmentalist. First elected to parliament in 2007 with the European Greens, he quit the party in 2015, criticising its "leftist drift" under the presidency of François Hollande. He founded his own green party that same year but joined Macron’s La République En Marche party in 2016.
De Rugy was appointed environment minister in September 2018 after serving as parliament speaker for just over a year.
When he first took up the post as National Assembly president in June 2017, de Rugy said that he “wanted the Assembly to be open and transparent. We often reproach male and female politicians for being cut off, living only in their political world in a kind of bubble”.
De Rugy might be wishing he could now return to that protective bubble.
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