PARIS – A government minister taking a sun-and-sea getaway paid by an unsavory autocrat?
While that scenario would be unthinkable in many countries, in France some top figures have made a habit of planning their vacations around the largesse of foreign governments or influential tycoons.
But the long-standing practice has come under scrutiny following revelations that the French prime minister took a family holiday funded by Egypt's government, and the foreign minister vacationed in Tunisia amid violent anti-government protests there.
As French media had a field day Wednesday — running front-page photos of Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie with headlines such as "Fillon Government Experiencing Heavy Turbulence" — President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to stamp out the controversy.
He told ministers at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday to "prioritize France" when picking holiday destinations. But then, Sarkozy said any invitations by foreign governments must be approved by the prime minister — the same premier 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, according to a statement released by his office. "That which was common several years ago can be seen as shocking today."
Long accepted as among the perks of being in political power, the practice of accepting junkets by foreign governments took on sinister overtones after the weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine revealed that Alliot-Marie vacationed in Tunisia amid the wave of 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, and she was repeatedly questioned about how close he was to the fallen regime. She insisted the man is a personal friend and a victim of the regime, not a supporter.
Still, critics pointed to the ill-timed trip as evidence of Alliot-Marie's cozy relations with Ben Ali and suggested those relations were why she was slow to speak out in support of anti-government protesters. Alliot-Marie also came under fire during the protests for offering French police know-how to Tunisian security forces, while the death toll of demonstrators killed by Tunisian police mounted.
The opposition called on her to resign, but she has resisted.
Fillon stood by Alliot-Marie, but soon found himself in the same tight spot, as this week's Le Canard Enchaine ran a cover story about his own holiday getaway to Egypt. Fillon acknowledged late Tuesday that the Egyptian government provided his family free lodging, a plane flight and an outing on the Nile during the Dec. 26-Jan. 2 vacation in Egypt.
The trip came well ahead of the mass protests aimed at ousting the embattled, autocratic Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, protests that entered their 16th day on Wednesday. Still, Fillon's trip raised ethical red flags. France was among European governments calling last week for a quick democratic transition in Egypt in response to the protests.
Elsewhere in Europe, it would be almost inconceivable for politicians to accept junkets paid by foreign governments.
Throughout Scandinavia and in Germany and Austria, private family vacations are the norm for most politicians. British, Spanish and Hungarian politicians have also tended to take their summer holidays at home over the past few years, partly in response to the financial crisis.
The exceptions to the low-profile rule are Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his flamboyant Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, who often vacation together at Berlusconi's villa in Sardinia or Putin's official residence on the Black Sea.
Sarkozy came under fire shortly after his election in 2007 for taking a post-campaign getaway on a yacht belonging to French magnate Vincent Bollore.