First there was the scandal of French foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie's holidays in strife-torn Tunisia, now comes that of Prime Minister François Fillon's sojourn in Egypt courtesy of President Hosni Mubarak. The revelations have stunned opinion in France and made headlines around the world, prompting President Nicolas Sarkozy to tell ministers they must holiday in France from now on. Marine Turchi reports on the parliamentary turbulence caused by the latest jet set holiday disclosures.
During question time at the French National Assembly on Tuesday, when Members of Parliament can call to account government ministers on current affairs, all eyes were on French foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. The scandal and continuing revelations surrounding her post-Christmas holidays in strife-torn Tunisia, and the use of a jet owned by businessmen close to the deposed Ben Ali regime, had reached such a fever pitch that, coupled with her inept public statements on the issue - it was difficult to imagine how she might survive.
But the surprise - and second scandal - came from the office of prime minister François Fillon, who had just left the floor of parliament to head for Annecy, where he was due to put in an appearance in support of the Alpine town's bid for the 2018 winter Olympics. It was 3.45 p.m. when Fillon's press office released a communiqué which announced that, during a private holiday in Egypt with his family between December 26th and January 2nd, the French prime minister had used an official plane lent to him by President Hosni Mubarak. The revelation brought an explanation of Fillon's unconditional support for Alliot-Marie over the turbulent last few days.
While Fillon's office explained the communiqué was released for reasons of "concern for transparency", it served to defuse the impending scandal of a scoop report, to be published Wednesday February 9th in the French weekly investigative and satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaîné, revealing the prime minister's Egyptian sojourn. The communiqué offered details of the trip: "Invited by the Egyptian authorities" Fillon travelled to Egypt "aboard a Falcon 7X" belonging to the French government aircraft fleet, "a "accompanied by his wife and his children".
It revealed that Fillon and his family were provided with their holiday accommodation "by the Egyptian authorities" and that, "also on the invitation of the Egyptian authorities" he had "taken a plane belonging to the Egyptian government fleet to travel from Aswan to Abu Simbel where he visited the temple", (no doubt referring to the ancient site's twin temples). Fillon also enjoyed "an outing on a boat on the Nile in the same conditions".
The communiqué also revealed that Fillon met with Mubarak at Aswan on December 30th, a meeting which had never before been mentioned by his office. That was in contrast to talks held between the two men one year earlier, on December 14th 2009, in Paris. "The conversation allowed making clear the excellent bilateral relations between Egypt and France, in every domain," read a communiqué by his office at the time. Fillon had previously chosen to spend his 2008 end-of-year holidays in Egypt, where his family joined him after an official two-day visit to Cairo just before Christmas.
The communiqué released by the prime minister's office this week made clear that Fillon's holiday in December 2010 was a private one. It said that as a result, concerning his use of a French government aircraft to travel from France to Egypt and back, "the fare of François Fillon and that of his members of family are billed to him, to his personal funds, at the rate established by the [French] air force, according to the rule that he himself fixed and which applies to each private trip." There was no mention of whether he had paid or contributed for his use of an Egyptian official aircraft.
The rule was not "fixed" only by Fillon. Last early summer, during an avalanche of revelations over ministerial excesses, including the use of jets and cigars paid by the public purse, and the conflicts of interest revealed by Mediapart in the Oréal-Bettencourt scandal, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that ministers would pay their private expenses from their own pocket. He said "sanctions" would be applied to those who crossed the line.
Fillon appears to have forgotten the president's recommendations made last summer to his government about their holidays. While the Bettencourt scandal illustrated the privileges and abuses of the rarefied world of high society and politics, and while the pension reforms bill calling on the French to work longer was about to pass before parliament, he called on ministers to show restraint in their personal leisure destinations. Shortly before Christmas he told government members not to travel too far, and to be ready to return immediately: "It must be possible to return fast in case of problem," he said, "afterwards, it's too late."
'A republic of untouchables'
Following the release of the communiqué by Fillon's office on Tuesday, ruling UMP party MPs had difficulty in answering journalists' questions; "I have no precise information, but the prime minister has our support," commented Christian Jacob, head of the UMP parliamentary group, adding that he was heading off "to take three minutes to look at the communiqué". Just a few hours earlier, he had
UMP MP and Fillon loyalist Jérôme Chartier mounted a defence of the prime minister. "The Egyptian protests began at the end of January, well after his return," he said. "At that time, Hosni Mubarak was viewed as an element of stability in the region [...] "Whether he be on a public or private voyage, the prime minister traditionally benefits from the protection of the country in which he was residing."
It was three hours after the release of the communiqué when UMP president Jean-François Copé announced his "total support" for Fillon and denounced - in clear confusion - the "systematic manhunt" employed by the Socialist Party. It was, of course, the Canard Enchaîné which revealed the favours enjoyed by Fillon in Egypt, and not the opposition party. "The prime minister is obviously not a citizen like any other," he added. "He remains the head of the government also when he is on holiday. In that capacity, for reasons of protocol and security, it would have been unthinkable that François Fillon would not be in contact with the Egyptian authorities when he went to Egypt." Copé insisted that "all of the personal expenses" of Fillon's holidays were paid "from his own pocket", which was not precisely what the official communiqué indicated.
Opposition MPs, meanwhile, were enjoying the moment. "I am stunned by the incestuous relations with scumbags, this collusion with criminals," said Green party MP Noël Mamère. "I understand better why François Fillon didn't want to abandon Michèle Alliot-Marie." A press statement by the Green party alliance Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts read: "Alliot-Marie with Ben Ali, François Fillon with Moubarak: France is the lauching stock of the world [...] How many ministers, then, would have used the services of Air Dictatorship for their holidays in the sun? The Sarkozy system has effaced the limits between power and money. Today, a minister finds nothing abnormal in taking the plane of an oligarch or having their holidays paid by a dictator."
Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, speaking from the Senegalese capital Dakar, where she was attending the World Social Forum, spoke of her "consternation". The party's spokesman, Benoît Hamon, denounced "the interminable series of this government's guilty relationships with private interests."
Maverick conservative right MP Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, head of the Debout la République movement, said « it is not a question of a plane nor the discredit of the government, but the discredit of France, the honour of our foreign policies."
"Nicolas Sarkozy does not realize the gravity of the situation," he added. "If he continues like that, he won't be able to be candidate in 2012." Making fun of Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 presidential election campaign promise to install an "irreproachable republic", Dupont-Aignan said France was a "republic of untouchables".
Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy is due to appear on television on Thursday evening, when he will answer questions from a panel made up of what the TF1 television channel bills as a cross-section of members of the public. The long-planned programme, Paroles de Français, could not have come at a more awkward time for Sarkozy. French daily Le Monde reported on its website that the presenter Jean-Pierre Pernaut, commenting on the issues submitted by members of the public to the programme by email, said he doubted that the controversy over Alliot-Marie's Tunisian holidays - he was speaking before the revelations about those of Fillon - was a subject of concern for the French public. "I think it's out of the frame," he said. As for Egypt, there appeared no need for viewers to hold their breath.