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Junket shame stirs a Sarkozy warning

An Egyptian antigovernment demonstrator’s sign in French alluded to a junket to Egypt by France’s prime minster, Francois Fillon, saying, “Pay us back the money of the people!’’ An Egyptian antigovernment demonstrator’s sign in French alluded to a junket to Egypt by France’s prime minster, Francois Fillon, saying, “Pay us back the money of the people!’’ (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)
By Jenny Barchfield
Associated Press / February 10, 2011

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PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is awkwardly trying to stamp out a controversy over his ministers taking sun-and-sea holidays paid for by the Egyptian government and a Tunisian businessman.

Some top French politicians have made a habit of planning vacations around the largesse of foreign governments or influential tycoons. But the longstanding practice has come under scrutiny after revelations that the prime minister’s family Christmas holiday was funded by Egypt’s government, and the foreign minister vacationed in Tunisia, hitching a ride on a businessman’s jet to avoid violent antigovernment protests there.

French media had a field day yesterday, running front-page photos of 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 yesterday to prioritize France when picking holiday destinations. But in a political faux pas of his own, 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 decision makers 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 — a longtime political perk — took on tone-deaf overtones after the newspaper Le Canard Enchaine revealed that Alliot-Marie vacationed in Tunisia amid violent popular protests that toppled the North African nation’s autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Alliot-Marie acknowledged accepting a ride in a private plane owned by a Tunisian businessman during the 2010 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 antigovernment protesters.

Alliot-Marie also came under fire for offering French police know-how to Tunisian security forces while the number of demonstrators killed by Tunisian police mounted.

The opposition called on her to resign, but she has resisted.

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