Paris Diary

Thought free cars were too good for our pols? Check out Air Sarko One

Thought free cars were too good for our pols? Check out Air Sarko One

If some Irish Ministers were grumbling privately after this week’s decision to withdraw their state cars and Garda drivers, comparing notes with their Parisian counterparts wouldn’t have given them much comfort.

Members of France’s ruling class enjoy the sort of perks many of their European counterparts would never get away with. Leaving aside salaries and expenses, the package for ministers and their juniors includes a luxury car and driver, a state apartment in Paris, a quota of annual flights and unlimited first-class train travel. When the weekly cabinet meeting is in progress, the courtyard of the Élysée Palace is filled with top-of-the-range Citroën C6s awaiting their ministers. And breaking with tradition is not the done thing: when culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand came to work on his scooter, Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly mocked him and told him this was no way for a minister to behave.

The prime minister enjoys all the benefits of his underlings and more, including an official residence at his Paris office, Hôtel Matignon, and two country homes. But that’s as nothing compared with the president’s perks. As well as a basic salary of about €250,000, France’s head of state has his official residence at the Élysée, a personal chef, special hunting privileges and four lavish résidences secondaires, including the weekend retreat at Versailles, the seaside hideaway at Brégançon in Provence and the traditional summer residence, the Château de Rambouillet, south of the capital. And a report last year showed the Élysée spent €706 every day on flowers.


Sarkozy also has exclusive use of a new Airbus, dubbed Air Sarko One, built to his specifications and featuring a double bedroom, an air-conditioned smoking room (Sarkozy likes an occasional cigar) and an anti-missile system. The government was pilloried for paying €180 million for the plane recently as France was bracing itself for deep spending cuts.

Among the jet’s other features are a conference room, an operating theatre and 60 standard seats in the back for ministers, aides and journalists.

France has long tolerated presidential and ministerial extravagance, but with austerity in the air Sarkozy has made some limited changes. The annual Élysée garden party was cancelled and ministers were encouraged to take the train and to stay in French embassies while overseas. The gestures were an attempt to staunch public anger after embarrassing revelations about ministers’ behaviour.

One junior minister spent €116,500 on a private jet for a trip to the French overseas department of Martinique and charged the exchequer. Another billed his department for €12,000 he spent on Cuban cigars over a 10-month period.

No wonder the French retain such fondness for Charles de Gaulle, the benchmark for integrity in public life. While he was in the Élysée, de Gaulle insisted on paying his own gas and electricity bills.

Evictions begin as winter law ends

Tens of thousands of French households had a particularly tough week. Under what is known as the winter law, landlords are not allowed to evict tenants during the coldest months of the year, between November 1st and March 15th. As of last Tuesday, about 100,000 face imminent eviction, according to charities.

A severe housing crisis in Paris has meant rents are spiralling. For city authorities, property prices have become a major worry, and much of the attention has focused on the foreign investors and occasional visitors whose purchases have turned parts of the city into ghost towns.

Walk around the richer arrondissements in the evening and you see that the lights are never on in many buildings – presumably because nobody lives in them. Last year foreigners bought 6.5 per cent of the housing sold in central Paris, and in the first arrondissement the figure was 17 per cent.

The result, of course, is that Parisians are moving out, with figures showing that the "75" département– central Paris – is one of only two in the country where the population is declining.

The trend is in striking contrast to the rest of the country, where Europe’s highest birth rate is leading to big population increases everywhere.

Of course, France is the original centralised state, and Paris dominates its economic, political and cultural life like few capital cities. But recent trends have caused sufficient alarm for people occasionally to whisper about “the spectre of Venice”.

Lévy leaps over Juppé on Libyan recognition

Where BHL goes, farce follows. Bernard-Henri Lévy (left), the celebrity philosopher with the elaborate hair and open-necked shirts, has a habit of finding himself at the centre of major news stories for reasons nobody quite understands. But this time he has excelled himself. After attending a meeting at the Élysée with Sarkozy and members of the opposition Libyan National Council – which BHL had arranged – the philosopher emerged and announced to the world that France had become the first country formally to recognise the opposition group as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people. He then identified a number of Libyan installations that foreign forces could destroy.

One man who wasn’t amused by the involvement of BHL – a figure of fun to many French people – was Alain Juppé, the newly appointed foreign minister.

Juppé had just emerged from a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels, where the discussion centred on whether to recognise the Libyan National Council, when he learned that Paris had done just that without letting him know. TV footage showed a furious Juppé and his officials hurriedly skimming the statement before speaking to the press.

Juppé wasn’t the only one left in the dark. The night before France announced its decision I was at the Élysée with a group of journalists to meet a senior official. Paris would not be recognising the Libyan opposition, the official assured us, because “France recognises states, not governments”. He clearly hadn’t reckoned with BHL.

Fresh nuclear fear fuels demand for iodine tablets

French people are among the world’s most incorrigible hypochondriacs. The ubiquitous pharmacies fulfil much the same role in French cities as pubs do in rural Ireland – places where people congregate for social exchange and communal indulgence of that great Gallic pleasure – complaining, at length, about what ails you.

No matter why you entered in the first place, you’ll never leave a pharmacy without a plastic bag filled with an assortment of pills, ointments, lotions, sprays and bandages, relieved that you have bought yourself some time from a condition you didn’t know you had.

Stoical Irish ah-sure-ism is a concept that wouldn’t translate. GPs’ waiting rooms are always heaving, and if someone as much as sneezes in an enclosed metro carriage fellow passengers will visibly squirm.

And yet even pharmacists were surprised by a steady flow of customers asking about iodine tablets this week. Some shops reported up to 20 visits in a few days from people who had heard that iodine protects against radiation.

It wasn’t simply that they feared the air could carry particles from the stricken Japanese nuclear reactors. France has the world’s second-largest nuclear energy industry, with 58 reactors providing three-quarters of its energy needs. Both major parties are pro-nuclear, but the Japanese disaster has shaken public confidence in the industry, and the Greens have already called for a referendum on its future.

The authorities have advised the public that iodine tablets cannot be dispensed without a government order and that they could pose a health risk if taken unnecessarily.

Finding French words for new technology

Tomorrow is International Day of the Francophonie, the community of French-speaking peoples around the world, and the occasion will be marked in 30 countries where French is an official language.

The latest figures show there are now 220 million French speakers, most of them in Europe, Africa and Canada.

As ever, the day has provoked debate about trends in the language, notably the growing influence of African-origin words and how the language is absorbing and adapting the vocabulary of technology. The Commission for Terminology and Neology, a government body that defines the official French equivalents of new terms, recently decreed that state employees should use tabletteor ardoise(slate) for any iPad-style device.

The commission has a mixed record. Some of its translations have been too clunky or long-winded to catch on, so chatis in common usage while le netor le webare much more common than la toile. Terminal de poche(smartphone) and un fouineur(a hacker) are rarely heard.

But when the commission comes up with an elegant coinage it tends to stick. So we have ordinateur(from the Latin word for creator, or someone who ordains) for computer and logicielfor software. Informatiqueis much better than its closest English equivalent, the ugly information technology.

The rise of le binge drinking

The expression le binge drinkingtells you how little the country has had to think about the problem, although the increasing number of press reports explaining to readers what it means ("drinking as much as possible in the least possible time") and its origins ("across the Channel") suggest a growing concern. But it is middle-aged men rather than teenagers who are the target of France's latest alcohol warnings.

Initiating a TV campaign this week with the slogan “Drinking a little too much every day puts your life in danger”, the health ministry said it was concerned that more than a quarter of Frenchmen over 40 drink alcohol every day, with 15 per cent of them taking more than three glasses of wine.

Two trends stood out: France’s heaviest drinkers live either in the poorest parts of the country or in wine-growing regions where the supply is plentiful and the culture runs deep.

Élysée forced to deny links to Gadafy

As Muammar Gadafy’s regime came under international diplomatic and military pressure this week, one of the colonel’s sons took aim at Nicolas Sarkozy by trying to link the French president with one of the most toxic brands in world affairs: Gadafy’s family.

Saif-al-Islam claimed – and the Élysée promptly denied – that Libya had financed Sarkozy’s campaign for the presidency in 2007, and said it now wanted its money back. But earlier in the week Fnac, a huge chain of book and entertainment stores, revealed that it had been paying rent to Tripoli for one of its landmark Paris sites since 1991.

Fnac said it had frozen payments, estimated at €10 million a year, on the art-deco store on Avenue des Ternes because the building’s owner, a Libyan investment fund called Lafico, was included on an EU list of entities “under the control of Muammar Gadafy and his family” or “a potential source of funding for his regime”.