February 15, 2011
February 14, 2011
First it was Tunisia’s Zein El Abidine Ben Ali. Then it was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Ousted by their own people? Yes, but here in France, they will be remembered as the all-expenses-paid hosts of Nicolas Sarkozy’s two leading ministers. Step forward, Prime Minister François Fillon and Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. Their timing was impeccable. The foreign minister and her consort, Deputy Minister of Parliamentary Relations Patrick Ollier, were flown around Tunisia with their children courtesy of a millionaire friend of Ben Ali’s about the time a young man’s self-immolation set the former French colony alight. On her return to Paris at the end of her complimentary winter vacation, Alliot-Marie proposed that France help Tunisian police quell the unrest and keep Ben Ali in office. Oops. The French could teach the Tunisians how to wield a nightstick; Ben Ali skipped town.
The French press picked up the story, and Prime Minister François Fillon gallantly leapt to her defense when the free holiday became public knowledge, only to be outed himself as a recipient of Hosni Mubarak’s largesse.
Conrad Hilton used to say the important thing in the hotel business was location, location, location. In politics, it’s timing. Fillon’s timing could not have been worse. In one of the more laughable political confessions this side of Chicago, the prime minister’s office released a statement that Fillon was coming clean about his own free Egyptian Christmas sojourn “in the interest of transparency.” His sudden decision to become transparent followed France’s satirical Canard Enchaîné running a front story about his vacation every night. Yet Fillon thinks he can get away with it, and he probably will. All he did was allow Mubarak’s regime to pick up the tab for his family’s hotel rooms, Nile cruise, and airfares.
Alliot-Marie, unlike Fillon, did not confess. She fought back like Lady Macbeth. She told France-24 Television, “I’ve done nothing politically reprehensible.” But her contention that she was “no longer the foreign affairs minister” while vacationing courtesy of a torturer’s crony had to be retracted as quickly as Sarah Palin’s misstatement about America’s long alliance with North Korea. Someone must have pointed out to her the obvious, which she reiterated the next day: “It’s true that one is a minister twenty-four hours a day and 365 days a year.” Well, one is until one has to resign.
The Chamber of Deputies had the temerity to question her about the affair. “This polemic is enough,” she declared. “I’ve responded with candor and honesty to everything. I will not respond anymore to anything.” In other words, “Let them eat pita.”
Sarkozy reacted to the scandals by informing his cabinet that “members of the government must prefer France for their holidays.” Presumably they will be free to accept flights and villas on the Côte d’Azur from local arms merchants, but the lid on invitations from abroad is partially shut. Exceptions to the no-foreign-freebie rule, according to Sarkozy, “will be authorized by the prime minister.…” But didn’t the prime minister cruise down the Nile at Mubarak’s expense?
What is it with politicians and freebies? During Tony Blair’s decade as Great Britain’s prime minister, he was never known to pay for a vacation. His hosts included Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb, Cliff Richard, businessmen such as Anthony Bamford and Alain-Dominique Perrin, and a hotel-tycoon friend of Mubarak’s (Gamal Omar) at Sharm el-Sheikh. (After so many Sinai holidays as Mr. Omar’s guest, Blair is known around town as “Mr. Tony.”) Lolling by the sea at the expense of singers such as Gibb and Richard seems innocuous, but these vacations accompanied Blair’s strenuous lobbying for changes to Britain’s copyright laws granting musicians additional royalties from their dreadful music.
While a young rising star of his party in 1989, Blair’s successor David Cameron accepted a South African government junket. 1989? Wasn’t Nelson Mandela still in prison? Wasn’t the apartheid regime shooting any black African who requested what Egyptians have been demanding for the last few weeks, i.e., the right to vote? That could be seen as a youthful error of judgment except for Cameron’s decision to take a free ride on the good yacht Rosehearty near Santorini in 2008. The flights to this rendezvous were paid by the son-in-law of the boat’s proprietor, that great benefactor of good causes, Mr. Rupert Murdoch. Cameron’s culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, while still grooming himself in opposition for higher office, admitted taking free tickets to sporting events funded by businesses with interests in government policies including the Royal Bank of Scotland, Independent Television, and Pinewood Studios. Hunt has the power to approve Murdoch’s full takeover of satellite television provider BSkyB or refer it for consideration by the Monopolies Commission.
Don’t worry, though. Our free press is all over this story. As the British journalist website journoworld.co.uk advises, “Because of how badly you get paid, it can be worth keeping an eye out for opportunities for getting things for free.”
It’s not called the free press for nothing. One British journalist complains she was fired from a woman’s fashion magazine for reporting elsewhere about all the presents offered her in one month. Among them was “a week on a yacht in Capri.”
When the Shah of Iran pulled a Mubarak back in 1979, the new regime published the names of all the foreign politicians and journalists who had received Persian carpets, paid holidays, and buckets of caviar from the old regime. We await the release of similar files in Tunis and Cairo.