Lobster, Champagne: French minister in hot water for funding ‘lavish lifestyle’ with tax payers money

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“Living like a royal on public funds”, is the accusation levelled at Francois de Rugy, the French energy and environment minister, after it was revealed he spent public money on lavish dinners and furnishings.

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Everyone needs to relax after a hard day in the office. Why not enjoy a little champagne and lobster dinner with some friends? When the gilt furniture looks a little less golden and the chandeliers are getting a little less luminous, who wouldn’t want to do a little home refurbishment? Best of all, get the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Francois de Rugy, former President of the National Assembly and currently Minister for Energy and Environment, is the latest French politician to get embroiled in a corruption scandal.

In an investigative article published on July 10, left-leaning website Mediapart describes de Rugy and his wife, the journalist Severine Servat-de Rugy, as “living like a royal on public funds” and inviting friends to “sumptuous receptions” in the Hôtel de Lassay, the official residence of the President of the Assembly.

Mediapart claimed there were more than ten dinners of this kind, held between October 2017 and June 2018. According to the news website, staff served bottles of expensive wines taken from Parliament’s cellars to guests who were “mainly friends” of the couple.

There were even photographs showing Servat-de Rugy in front of jaw-droppingly expensive bottles of wine, not to mention the unending line of lobster platters.

After its publication, this story was quickly picked up by other media outlets. De Rugy rapidly attempted to get ahead of the scandal and went on France Inter radio that very same day.

‘Grotesque’ smear campaign

In a misjudged decision, de Rugy chose to brazen it out, saying that the article was nothing more than a smear campaign, calling it “grotesque”.

According to him, these receptions were justified expenses, part of his working life, and that they allowed him to meet representatives from different sectors of life, “some of whom we knew, others we did not,” he said.

He acknowledged that his wife had participated in organising the dinners and picking the guests, but he refused to accept that they had done anything wrong. “We have nothing to reproach ourselves for, neither she nor I,” he said.

He also responded more extensively on Facebook on July 10. But his tone remained determinedly defensive, insisting that he had done nothing wrong.

Poor de Rugy. Someone needed to tell him that when you are in a hole, put down the shovel. Indeed, de Rugy’s response served only to increase the media attention around the scandal.

Fuel was added to the fire on Wednesday evening, when Mediapart published new information, this time about the director of de Rugy’s cabinet, Nicole Klein. According to the site, Klein had held on to a council flat (social housing) in Paris since 2001. She even kept it from 2006 to 2018 when she no longer lived in the capital. Her response? She had forgotten she had an apartment in the French capital.

De Rugy instantly demanded that she resign from her position and she reluctantly complied, saying “it is Francois de Rugy who expressly wishes me to leave.”

On July 11, Mediapart published a follow-up article, revealing that after de Rugy and his wife moved into his official ministerial apartment over €63,000 was spent to have it extravagantly refurbished. This article was filled with even more damning photographs.

The total cost included a brand new dressing room for a somewhat exorbitant €17,000. Guess who footed the bill? Yes, Mr and Mrs Taxpayer.

When asked about the expensive layout of a dressing room by Mediapart, Servat-de Rugy did not have a direct answer. “I don’t know what to say to you. It’s not really a dressing room, it is just wardrobes. And when we arrived, there were none, nothing. I don’t know what to tell you,” she concluded.

It was revealed that not only was the work predominantly decorative rather than essential maintenance, but they also did not chose the cheapest providers to carry them out. For the carpentry work (including the dressing room), the most expensive of the four candidates was chosen.

The minister’s office justified the cost of the work saying they had to use “qualified craftsmen” due to “the particular character of the building” that the apartment is in, an 18th century building in the 17th district of Paris.

Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said on Wednesday that Nicolas Hulot’s successor “obviously” was still trusted by Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. However, de Rugy was summoned for a meeting with Philippe on Thursday afternoon.

A green activist who rose to the top

De Rugy’s glittering career has never faced such a damaging scandal.

He originally became the energy and environment minister when he replaced Hulot, who left the post somewhat abruptly.

Hulot announced his resignation on live radio on August 28 2018, taking even President Emmanuel Macron by surprise. Former TV presenter and green activist Hulot said he had to quit after a series of disappointments in his attempts to address climate change and other environmental threats.

De Rugy was appointed his replacement just weeks later in September, moving upwards and onwards from President of the National Assembly, a post he had held since June 2017.

De Rugy, 44, is a long-time politician and environmentalist. First elected to parliament in 2007 with the European Greens, he quit the party in 2015, criticizing its “leftist drift” under the presidency of François Hollande. He founded his own green party in the same year.

He joined Macron’s La République En Marche party in 2016.

When he took up the position in the National Assembly, de Rugy said that he, “wanted the Assembly to be open and transparent. We often reproach male and female politicians for being cut off, living only in their political world in a kind of bubble”.

De Rugy may now wish he could return to the protection of that bubble.

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