French government ministers are under orders to lose the easy-come, easy-go attitude.
That’s particularly true for Alain Joyandet, secretary of state for overseas development, who spent $143,000 of taxpayer money on a private jet to the Caribbean. And for Christian Blanc, secretary of state for the greater Paris region, who’s been told to reimburse the $15,000 of public funds he spent on Havana cigars.
Revelation in the last few weeks of such lavish habits has sent a chilling wind through the corridors of power, resulting in a brisk awakening for many in the politically privileged class, including the president himself.
On the night of his election victory in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy shocked many by throwing a party at Fouquet’s, one of Paris’ most expensive restaurants. No burgers at Ben’s Chili Bowl for this world leader.
A few days later, he was cruising the Mediterranean in a luxury ship belonging to a billionaire businessman friend.
The Rolex-wearing president became renowned for having no hang-ups about money or ostentatious displays of wealth and privilege.
He even reinstated ceremonial hunting parties, a throwback to the pre-revolution ancien regime, when French kings ran down wild boar and threw lavish banquets at a chateau on the River Loire.
And Sarkozy’s ministers apparently thought they could follow suit:
A private jet for an official trip to Martinique. Cuban cigars on the taxpayer dime. A junior minister with two official apartments in Paris. Another who gave relatives the keys to her government pad, complete with personal valet and chef.
In the land where a “let them eat cake” approach can leave a particularly bad taste, the news media declared the abuses “indecent,” and the ministers involved saw their popularity plummet in polls.
The magazine Le Point declared: “Since the beginning of time, excesses have been committed by unscrupulous people unaware of the inelegance of their behavior.”
Michela Marzano, a Paris-based philosophy professor, said: “Sadly, I am forced to say that our elites — sporting, financial and political — seem incapable of learning the lessons of the crisis that started in 2008.”
Sarkozy has finally realized that he and the administration can no longer live the high life while urging the financially squeezed population to work harder and longer. Last month, he announced he will shuffle ministerial posts in the fall — a not-so-subtle warning that the party is over.
Along with clamping down on the more obvious excesses, the president has ordered ministers to reduce their staffs, stamp out misuse of office equipment and pay their own private expenses instead of dipping into the public purse. Even the grand boar hunts for courtiers and foreign VIPs have been dumped.
For official travel, ministers have been told to take trains and not planes when possible, and cut the number of advisors they have in tow. Hotels are authorized only if no rooms are available for free in state-owned buildings, such as embassies and consulates.
The obvious target of that last measure was the glamorous sports minister, Rama Yade. She had criticized the French soccer team for living it up in five-star lodgings during its disastrous World Cup experience. Meanwhile, she was booked into an even more expensive hotel in South Africa with five members of her staff.
In a letter to French Prime Minister Francois Fillon last month, Sarkozy warned that those defying his cost-cutting diktats would face “punishment.”
“I have decided that the lifestyle of the state must be vigorously reduced,” he wrote. “The state must, more than ever, set an example.”
What really grates with the public is that although French lawmakers are paid relatively modest salaries of about $77,000 — after taxes — their expenses can run up to $86,200 a year with no questions asked. They also get 40 free return flights to their provincial homes, free train travel, reduced social security payments and enviable pension benefits.
And lawmakers are not the only ones on the public gravy train. A recent report found that French air traffic controllers get an average of 31 weeks of paid leave a year. Another inquiry found the Interior Ministry has 32 chauffeurs and 31 vehicles allocated to people who “exercise no function at the ministry"; among the beneficiaries are eight former interior ministers and two former prime ministers.
Critics also point out that although Sarkozy has canceled his annual summer party at Elysee Palace, he is still awaiting delivery of a specially adapted Airbus A330 to rival President Obama’s Air Force One. It’s nicknamed Sarko One and costs $221 million.
Elie Cohen, a leading economist and research director at France’s national scientific research center, said the president’s measures were “necessary” in the current political and economic atmosphere, but largely symbolic.
“We’re talking about a few dozen million euros,” he said “It’s paltry compared to the 100 billion [euros] the state must find to reduce state deficits.”
Willsher is a special correspondent.