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Sarkozy tells French officials no more vacationing on Arab autocrats' dime

France's prime minister and foreign minister are taking heat for gratis luxury holidays in Egypt and Tunisia. President Sarkozy says vacationing in France is a better idea.

By Staff writer / February 9, 2011

France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon attends the government questions session at the National Assembly in Paris on Feb 9.

Charles Platiau/Reuters

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Cozy post-colonial relations between French and North African elites in states like Tunisia and Egypt have taken a wild ride in the French media this week. Articles today confirmed that Prime Minister François Fillon spent an all-expenses paid week in Egypt recently and was even reportedly flown around on President Hosni Mubarak’s plane.

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Revelations of Mr. Fillon’s junket follows the more embarrassing story of Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie’s free holiday ride on a corporate jet while in Tunisia for the purposes of sidestepping the onset of the revolution that ousted Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Now, ever eager to find a quick solution, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken the step of ordering French officials to holiday in France on private vacations. They should “prioritize France,” he said. Should foreign governments extend invitations to French officials in future, that trip will have to be approved by, er, Fillon.

"It's only by being irreproachable that highly placed decisionmakers will be able to shore up citizens' confidence in the institutions of the state," Mr. Sarkozy said in a statement yesterday that came upon news that the prime minister’s Egypt idyll was about to hit the newsstands. "That which was common several years ago can be seen as shocking today," the president said.

The saucy satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaine, broke both revelations of holiday travel under the auspices of autocratic regimes.

Ms. Alliot-Marie’s trip has been fodder for French media and opposition politicians for weeks. Until days before billionaire president Ben Ali left Tunisia, she was tacitly supporting the Ben Ali regime, and even offered assistance to the Tunisian police. A plane carrying French riot gear was halted at Charles De Gaulle Airport on the weekend Ben Ali left.

Alliot-Marie has resisted calls for her resignation. Following the revelations about the prime minister’s trip, analysts say she's safe since her resignation would put even more pressure on Fillon, a centrist figure more appreciated by all sides in France.

With reports of the Le Canard Enchaine story on Fillon reaching the Élysée Palace yesterday, Fillon quickly came out to affirm that he spent Dec. 26 to Jan. 2 at the Egyptian government’s expense, including lodging and a Nile boat trip.

Large strata of French officials and elites are known to vacation, often on open freebie invitations, particularly in resorts and palaces on the coasts of Morocco and Tunisia. Sarkozy, himself known for various rides and vacations around the world on yachts and in the private jets of billionaire friends, seems to now have put down his foot.

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