Sarkozy: Stay home to avoid gaffes
Roland Lloyd Parry
Paris - French President Nicolas Sarkozy told his ministers on Wednesday to stay in France on holiday to avoid diplomatic gaffes after scandals over hospitality from authoritarian north African leaders.
Sarkozy bowed to criticism from rivals after embarrassing revelations that his prime minister and foreign minister accepted free holiday flights in Egypt and Tunisia, shortly before popular uprisings swept both countries.
"It is imperative that we promote the spread of a true culture of ethics in French public life," Sarkozy said, in a statement that appeared to acknowledge a shift away from a traditional deference to French leaders.
"What was common a few years ago can shock nowadays. So it must be strictly monitored," he told a cabinet meeting, according to a transcript released by his office.
"Citizens' expectations are higher and they are legitimate."
Free trip on the Nile
Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Tuesday admitted that he had a New Year family holiday on the Nile paid for by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"I strictly respected all the rules governing private trips abroad for a prime minister or president," Fillon told parliament later on Wednesday.
Sarkozy himself had faced criticism for flying on a tycoon friend's plane during his own Christmas holiday on the Nile with his pop singer wife Carla Bruni in 2007.
The couple also spent their recent New Year holiday in Morocco at the Jnane Lekbir royal residence belonging to King Mohammed VI.
"From now on, members of the government must prefer France for their holidays," Sarkozy said in Wednesday's statement. He did not say whether the rules would also apply to the French president.
Last week Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie had faced calls to resign after she admitted using a private plane owned by a Tunisian businessman who was alleged to have ties to the regime of the country's since ousted dictator.
Under the new rules for ministers, "invitations accepted abroad will be authorised by the prime minister and the presidential diplomatic unit... to see whether they are compatible with France's foreign policy", Sarkozy said.
Tuesday's revelation by Fillon sparked by a report in the investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine - which also broke the Alliot-Marie story - raised new complaints about government ethics.
"A minister sees nothing abnormal in using an oligarch's plane or having his holidays paid for by a dictator. That's the most serious thing," Jean-Louis Roumegas, spokesperson for the minority Green coalition, said in a statement.
"The crumbling of the public spirit has reached the very top of the state," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Socialist parliamentary leader who had led calls for Alliot-Marie to resign. He called for a law to curb conflicts of interest.
Egypt a key western ally
Fillon promptly told the cabinet that such a bill would be launched "in the coming weeks", a government statement said after the meeting. "The prevention of conflicts of interest will be strengthened."
Egypt is a key regional ally for France as well as for Britain and the United States.
They have all called for immediate political transition in Egypt after mass protests broke out against Mubarak's rule. At least 300 people are said to have been killed in the unrest.
Alliot-Marie admitted that in December she took two trips in Tunisia in a plane owned by a prominent businessman when the revolt that deposed strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was already under way in the former French colony.
The Tunisian uprising laid France open to criticism of its stance on Ben Ali. France had warm relations with him during his 23 years of iron-fisted rule, but once he was ousted Sarkozy promptly backed the protest movement.