French minister quits after claims he billed taxpayer for private lobster dinners

Francois De Rugy says Mediapart attacked him on basis of ‘stolen photos and rumours’

Francois De Rugy with his     journalist wife Severine Servat: the environment minister quit following a week of reports   about his high spending on   dinners and costly renovations of his ministerial residence. Photograph:  Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Francois De Rugy with his journalist wife Severine Servat: the environment minister quit following a week of reports about his high spending on dinners and costly renovations of his ministerial residence. Photograph: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

 

France’s environment minister resigned on Tuesday following a week of reports by an investigative website about his high spending on private lobster dinners and costly renovations of his ministerial residence.

In a posting on his Facebook page, Francois De Rugy said he had handed his resignation to prime minister Edouard Philippe because the “effort required to fight the accusations” was undermining his ability to do his job.

Mr de Rugy (45) has denied all wrongdoing, but the reports have made it hard for him to continue a series of key reforms, including the restructuring of indebted state utility EDF.

The scandal has also reinforced criticism of President Emmanuel Macron’s government as being elitist, as it struggles to end months of “yellow vests” protests, which marred the traditional Bastille Day parade on Sunday.

Mr de Rugy said he had filed a criminal complaint against the investigative website, Mediapart, over its reporting.

Stolen photos

“Since the start of last week, Mediapart has attacked me on the basis of stolen photos, rumours, half-truths and things that have nothing to do with my job,” he wrote.

“Given Mediapart’s untruths, I have this morning filed a criminal complaint for defamation.”

Speaking to France Info, Mediapart co-founder Edwy Plenel defended the website’s reporting, saying: “We’re doing our job in the interests of public service.”

The Élysée Palace said Mr Macron had accepted the resignation of Mr de Rugy, a former speaker of parliament who ranks as number two in his centrist government. “It is a personal decision, which [the president] respects, so that he can fully focus on his defence,” a source said.

Mediapart reported last week that Mr de Rugy hosted lavish dinners at his official residence while he was speaker of parliament in 2017-2018. The events, the website said, were mostly for friends and partly organised by his journalist wife, Séverine Servat.

Mediapart published photographs from one event showing plates of lobster and expensive wines and Champagne from the French parliament wine cellar, with the taxpayer covering the bill.

In his Facebook post, Mr de Rugy said these and other allegations made by Mediapart were untrue and said they amounted to a “media lynching”.

Resigned

On Tuesday, Mediapart also reported that Mr de Rugy had used his parliamentary expense account to pay part of his contributions to his Europe Écologie-Les Verts green party in 2013 et 2014. Mr de Rugy did not immediately comment on that claim.

Mr de Rugy was appointed in September 2018 to succeed Nicolas Hulot, an environmental campaigner who himself had resigned because he did not feel Mr Macron was sufficiently committed to his ecology programme.

Under the more pragmatic Mr de Rugy, the government delayed reducing France’s reliance on nuclear energy and dropped plans for new carbon taxes on vehicle traffic.

With the Green Party gaining ground in the European Parliament election in May and the French government criticised for going slow on fighting pollution, Mr Macron needs someone with strong green credentials to replace Mr de Rugy.

The environment ministry is one of France’s most sensitive posts as powerful lobbies of the nuclear, automotive and agriculture sectors limit its ability to introduce reforms.

Mr de Rugy was France’s 14th environment minister in the last 20 years, underlining the challenges. One of his predecessors, Robert Poujade, once called it “the ministry of the impossible”.

– Reuters