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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

France Cuts Ministers' Housing Perks

bloombergHerve Gaymard
PARIS -- The French government has acted swiftly to try to end a furor over a Cabinet minister's luxury apartment, signaling its determination to prevent political scandals as it struggles to push through economic reforms.

Finance Minister Herve Gaymard said last week that he, his wife and their eight children would move out of their 600-square-meter flat in an upscale area of Paris, which is reported to cost the state 14,000 euros ($18,300) per month.

And Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin issued new rules limiting the size of apartments ministers can use, hoping to end the uproar over the cost at a time when the government is demanding savings to trim its budget deficit.

The conservative government and President Jacques Chirac can ill afford scandals as they fear voters will show discontent with their policies by rejecting the European Union's constitution in a referendum expected in May or June.

The government is also keen to distance itself from party funding scandals and accusations of impropriety against senior officials, including Chirac, in the 1990s. Commentators saw this as a refreshing new mood in French politics.

"A few years ago, people might have turned a blind eye to the affair of Mr. Gaymard's apartment," the newspaper Le Monde said.

"The press was far less incisive and political leaders much more free [before] to lead, in private, a life contrary to the principles they professed in public."

The newspaper Liberation praised Gaymard for rapidly backing down, noting that former conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe had lost his political credibility when he became embroiled in a housing scandal in the 1990s.

Juppe was forced to abandon his five-bedroom apartment in Paris in 1995 after it emerged that he and his son, who lived in an adjacent flat, were paying bargain-basement rent.

"Gaymard's misadventure will thus have had a virtue -- serving to raise the moral standards of public life," Liberation said.

Official housing is a normal perk for ministers. The Finance Ministry building includes several flats, but Gaymard would have had to take two unconnected apartments to house his large family.

The scandal broke after the newspaper Le Canard Enchaine reported on the size and cost of Gaymard's flat last Wednesday. Gaymard denied he had done anything wrong, and said he gave up the apartment to try to end the uproar and protect his family.

Some politicians said that despite the government's response, the affair showed French politicians still had a dismissive attitude toward moral issues.

"In Scandinavian democracies, this situation would have led directly to the minister's resignation," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of Socialist deputies in Parliament.

"A government minister should not behave like a merry grand duke," political commentator Alain Duhamel told RTL radio.

Ministers will now be allowed free housing, when needed, of no more than 80 square meters, plus 20 square meters for each dependent child, Raffarin said.