Monday, November 29, 1999

French politicians` privileges heading for the chop

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As the austerity axe falls in France, many of the little privileges the Parisian political elite enjoys are heading for the same chopping block that the government is preparing for the nation.Cabinet members are suddenly being asked about the multiple income streams, free lodging and padded expenses they long took for granted. Cushy pensions for parliamentarians look threatened now that voters are being asked to retire later.The trend lacks the shock of Britain's expenses scandal last year, when leaked details of deputies' dubious claims caused an outcry, but media exposes of wasted public funds are forcing the government to slash perks one-by-one."Eighty-four percent of the French think a cut in ministers' salaries would be good because they should give an example in this time of crisis," the polling group IFOP said in a survey.Prime Minister Francois Fillon delivered the latest blow on Tuesday, a day before Labour Minister Eric Woerth announced the French must work two years longer before retiring and the rich pay more taxes to help finance the indebted pension system.Five cabinet ministers drawing a pension from their previous careers as parliamentarians while pocketing their normal salaries will have to stop their double-dipping, he said.This proposal, which will cut their monthly take from 20,000 to 14,000 euros ($24,607 to $17,224), was awkward because it meant barring them from using a loophole Fillion created in an earlier reform to let retirees augment pensions with a new job.PARLIAMENTARY PENSIONSTwo months ago, Fillon ordered ministers to take only commercial flights after his state secretary for overseas development, Alain Joyandet, spent 116,500 euros ($143,219) chartering a private jet to attend a conference in Martinique.The heightened scrutiny of politicians' perks has turned the spotlight on the generous retirement system for deputies, who get two years' worth of pension rights for each year spent in the National Assembly or Senate.Also speaking on the eve of Wednesday's pension reform announcement, Assembly President Bernard Accoyer argued for swift action to make deputies sacrifice too. "These exceptions should be eliminated right away," he told Europe 1 radio.Another perk in peril is the free Paris flat that goes automatically with cabinet rank, whether needed or not.That one hit the headlines when Industry Minister Christian Estrosi was revealed to be occupying rooms at the Economics Ministry in eastern Paris while lending a relative his official flat overlookng the Eiffel Tower on the other side of the city.Fadela Amara, state secretary for urban affairs, admitted this month that family members sometimes used her official flat in the same upscale neighbourhood while she stayed in her own more humble flat in a popular district of Paris.The satirical weekly Canard Enchaine has specialised in exposing padded expenses, such as the 12,000 euros ($14,738) for Havana cigars claimed by Christian Blanc, state secretary for the Greater Paris region.He blamed his chief of staff for the purchases, which were listed as entertainment expenses, and reimbursed 3,500 euros for those he said he had smoked."Are cabinet ministers ready to make sacrifices?" the Paris daily La Croix asked on Wednesday. It said it had contacted 20 ministers for comment but only Estrosi -- a veteran of previous expenses scandals -- agreed to be interviewed for the article.(Editing by Noah Barkin)

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