Holiday at home to cut gaffes, Sarkozy tells ministers
French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered his ministers 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 in both countries.
"From now on, members of the government must prefer France for their holidays," President Nicolas Sarkozy told a cabinet meeting, according to a transcript released by his office.
"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," Sarkozy said. "Citizens' expectations are higher and they are legitimate."
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.
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 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.
It made no mention of whether the rules would also apply to the French president.
Some government allies had rejected the uproar by their opponents over the holidays, but Tuesday's revelation by Fillon raised broader laments over 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, spokesman 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.
Fillon promptly told the cabinet that such a bill would be "in the coming weeks," a government statement said after the meeting. "The prevention of conflicts of interest will be strengthened."
A political scandal that dominated the French news last year, linked to the L'Oreal cosmetics billionaire Liliane Bettencourt, centred on an alleged conflict of interest implicating Sarkozy's former budget minister Eric Woerth.
Woerth denied any wrongdoing and resisted calls to step down until a government reshuffle in November.
Egypt is a key regional ally for France as well as for the United States. North Africa is a popular winter destination for France's political elite.
Sarkozy and his pop singer wife Carla Bruni spent their end-of year holiday in Morocco at the Jnane Lekbir royal residence belonging to King Mohammed VI.
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.
France was accused of being slow to react to the Tunisian uprising and of indulging Ben Ali's authoritarian regime.
France had warm ties with Ben Ali during his 23 years in power but just after he was driven out, Sarkozy backed the protest movement and denied him refuge in France.
Last week Sarkozy also added his voice to calls for immediate political transition in Egypt as pressure grew on Mubarak to step down amid mass protests.
© 2011 AFP