Career-killer lobster saga continues to grip French politics
François de Rugy is latest head on pike after revelations of lavish dinners on public funds
Former environment minister François de Rugy and his wife, journalist Séverine Servat. Rugy resigned following revelations by news website Mediapart about sumptuous private dinners paid for by public funds. Photograph: Julien de Rosa/EPA
A pile of giant red lobsters on a silver platter, surrounded by champagne bottles and glittering crystal, destroyed the career of environment minister François de Rugy this month.
The photograph was published by the investigative website Mediapart on July 10th. Rugy resigned six days later. But the latest saga of privilege in high places continues to roil French politics.
When mobile telephones are cameras, and the mood in France is to skewer politicians’ heads on pikes, one wonders how Rugy could have been so stupid. Mediapart’s first article, about “the de Rugys’ lavish lifestyle on public funds”, told of “feasts worthy of grand state dinners”, some allegedly for personal friends, during Rugy’s 14-month tenure as speaker of the National Assembly in 2017 and 2018.
“There are cursed objects, mere contact with which can be as fatal as Snow White’s apple,” wrote Laurent Joffrin, the director of Libération newspaper. The list of radioactive objects which have contaminated French politicians is long: Giscard’s diamonds; Roland Dumas’s Berluti shoes; François Fillon’s bespoke suits; €12,000 worth of cigars that a cabinet minister asked an aide to purchase from his ministry’s budget . . .
Rugy is the first to fall foul of giant red lobsters.
Edwy Plenel, the director of Mediapart, is the scourge of corrupt politicians and can claim more hunting trophies than any other French journalist. He is feared and loathed by the ruling elite.
Rugy announced on Tuesday evening that he is suing Mediapart for defamation. Mediapart’s critics see its journalists as muckrakers and troublemakers. Rugy claimed two investigations, published late on Tuesday, one by the prime minister’s office, the other by the National Assembly, into his alleged misdeeds had totally cleared him.
Rugy says it was ‘only three’ dinners. Well that’s three dinners too many. And I’m fed up with politicians blaming the press
Well, not exactly. The report for the Assembly concluded that “only three” of 12 dinners were ethically questionable, because the menus were “obviously excessive”. These included a Christmas dinner and the Valentine’s Day feast where the lobsters were photographed.
“It serves him right,” a retired supreme court judge told me. “Rugy says it was ‘only three’ dinners. Well that’s three dinners too many. And I’m fed up with politicians blaming the press.”
Mediapart’s revelations continued, like the drip, drip, drip of a Chinese water torture. The website must have a mole tunnelled into the legislature or environment ministry, where Rugy moved in September 2018, with his wife Séverine.
After the sumptuous dinners at the hôtel de Lassay, the speaker’s official residence, readers were treated to details of Rugy’s renovation of the hôtel de Roquelaure, the environment minister’s residence, for a total of €64,523.
Rugy’s cabinet director resigned when it was revealed that she lived in public housing, which she didn’t qualify for. Rugy also rented a government-subsidised apartment in his parliamentary district.
He probably did nothing illegal, but he showed a gross error of judgment. His career is finished
Deputies in the National Assembly receive a €5,373 monthly allowance to cover expenses. Rugy dipped into his to pay dues to the Europe Écologie – Les Verts green party, a violation of regulations, then claimed a tax exemption for it.
“If Rugy was loyal to the president and prime minister, he would have resigned the moment the first story was published, to protect them,” a source at the Élysée said. “He probably did nothing illegal, but he showed a gross error of judgment. His career is finished. He ought to stay out of the news now, instead of giving television interviews.”
Macron’s previous summer was blighted by the Alexandre Benalla affair, after a video emerged showing his bodyguard beating up protesters. Benalla also waited too long to resign.
Rugy’s demise has reopened a sempiternal debate about ethics in French politics. Why can’t France be more like Sweden, editorialists are asking. In 1995, Mona Sahlin, the number two in the Swedish government, resigned when it was revealed she charged a Toblerone chocolate bar on her government credit card.
The first law passed during Macron’s term was intended to “re-establish confidence” in French politics and institutions. The government created an ethics watchdog after the former prime minister François Fillon was revealed to have paid his wife and children hundreds of thousands of euro in government salaries.
Prime minister Édouard Philippe has just ordered that all renovations of official residences costing more than €20,000 must receive high-level approval. And the National Assembly created a working group to review rules on spending by its speaker.