To the delight of the media, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is awkwardly trying to stamp out a controversy over his ministers taking sun-and-sea holidays paid for by autocrats.
While that scenario would be unthinkable in many countries, in France some top figures have made a habit of planning vacations around the largesse of foreign governments or influential tycoons.
However, the long-standing practice has come under scrutiny following revelations that the prime minister took a family Christmas holiday funded by Egypt’s government, and the foreign minister vacationed in Tunisia, hitching a ride on a businessman’s jet to avoid violent anti-government protests there.
The local media had a field day on Wednesday, running front-page photos of French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie with headlines such as “Fillon Government Experiencing Heavy Turbulence.”
Sarkozy told ministers at a Cabinet meeting to “prioritize France” when picking holiday destinations. However, in a political faux pas, Sarkozy said any invitations by foreign governments must be approved by the prime minister — the same man who vacationed on Egypt’s dime.
“It’s only by being irreproachable that highly placed decisionmakers will be able to shore up citizens’ confidence in the institutions of the state,” Sarkozy said in a statement. “That which was common several years ago can be seen as shocking today.”
Accepting junkets by foreign governments took on tone-deaf overtones after the Le Canard Enchaine newspaper revealed that Alliot-Marie vacationed in Tunisia amid violent popular protests that toppled Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Alliot-Marie acknowledged accepting a ride in a private plane owned by a Tunisian businessman during the year-end holiday.
She insisted the man was a personal friend who was victimized by Tunisia’s fallen regime, not a supporter.
Still, critics used the ill-timed trip as evidence of Alliot-Marie’s cozy relations with Ben Ali and suggested that was why she was slow to speak out in support of anti-government protesters. Alliot-Marie also came under fire for offering French police know-how to Tunisian security forces while the number of protesters killed by Tunisian police mounted.
The opposition called on her to resign, but she has resisted.
Fillon stood by Alliot-Marie, but soon found himself in the same tight spot, as Le Canard Enchaine ran a cover story about his own holiday getaway to Egypt. Fillon acknowledged late on Tuesday that the Egyptian government gave his family free lodging, a plane flight and Nile boat trip during their Dec. 26 to Jan. 2 vacation in Egypt.
The trip came ahead of mass protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Still, Fillon’s trip raised ethical red flags. France was among European governments calling last week for a quick democratic transition in Egypt.
Sarkozy himself came under fire after his election in 2007 for taking a post-campaign getaway on a yacht belonging to French magnate Vincent Bollore.
New questions emerged on Wednesday about Sarkozy’s own year-end holiday in Morocco and a recent weekend in New York. Government spokesman Francois Baroin, when asked who footed the bill for those trips, refused to provide any details.
Miklos Marschall, the deputy managing director of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, called the whole situation “embarrassing.”