Saturday, February 26, 2005

Les paysans révoltent?

In a country where political corruption is endemic and the élites inhabit a different world, well-lubricated by the ever-suffering taxpayer, this one still takes some beating.

Finance minister, Hervé Gaymard – a protegé of Chirac - presiding over an austerity programme to bring down the state deficit, has been caught with his hands in the till. Pleading poverty when he was appointed to replace Nicolas Sarkozy at the finance ministry last November, he was provided with a spacious £9,700-a-month Paris flat at state expense.

Now, it transpires that he had his own flat in the city, which he has been renting out for £1,700 a month, plus two country homes.

But the ripples of l'affaire Gaymard are spreading outwards, leaving Raffarin's government damaged by conveying an image of personal extravagance with public funds while at the same time lecturing France on the need to cut state spending.

More seriously, according to The Times this morning, this "Let them eat cake" attitude could yet cost Europe its constitution.

From Chirac's admitted use of state cash for his family holidays to the lodgings and limousines enjoyed by hundreds of provincial officials, the regal habits of the Gallic governing elite are under intense scrutiny. Now, Gaymard has triggered a backlash against the monarchical ways of the Fifth Republic.

Insiders believe that French voters, fed up with the profligacy and the disdain with which they are treated, will take the opportunity of the EU referendum "to blow a raspberry" at Chirac and his high-living friends.

According to The Times, a mutinous public spirit was already rampant this winter. Chirac and the "Chamberlain-like" M Raffarin were taken aback in December when the prefects, or provincial governors, joined forces to tell them: "The French no longer believe in anything... They do not believe that it is even worth expressing their point of view or trying to make themselves heard." One of the prime grievances is the cost, and shortage, of housing.

Now, this feeling is coming to a head. Yesterday some MPs in the centre-right Government coalition said that M Gaymard's housing antics, could stoke a voter revolt rather like Queen Marie-Antoinette’s advice to the starving to eat cake.

Once again, it seems, les paysans révoltent.

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