How a new expenses scandal has destroyed Emmanuel Macron's promise of clean politics

Environment minister François de Rugy's lavish taxpayer-funded lifestyle exemplifies the gap between the elite and the French people. 

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Scandal in Macron country: the French president’s environment minister, François de Rugy, has made dubious use of public funds, independent news website Médiapart revealed last week. The series of leaks on De Rugy’s sumptuous lifestyle has put an abrupt end to the (already tainted) “exemplary attitude” that Macron vowed to uphold after his 2017 election. 

The environment minister refurbished various offices and flats for vast sums of money, while living in social housing for years, Médiapart revealed. But it was the photo of De Rugy himself, sat at a table in a splendid dining room with golden moulding and chandeliers, smiling widely, that really touched a nerve. 

During his tenure as president of the National Assembly between June 2017 and September 2018, De Rugy organised lavish private dinners, using state staff and funds. Menus included giant lobsters and €500 bottles of wine, which the De Rugys shared with close friends from the media, finance and culture sectors. 

Photos of the lush dinners, held in the National Assembly’s private Hôtel de Lassay palace, quickly went viral. Some had been taken after the start of the gilets jaunes protests last year, and perfectly symbolised the immense and widening gap between the political elite and the French people, which sparked and fuelled the movement’s discontent. In the picture of De Rugy, taken during an intimate Valentine’s dinner (National Assembly staff were requisitioned and even asked to decorate the table with rose petals, Médiapart reported), the minister’s smile seemed as naive as it was inappropriate.

De Rugy contested the allegations, arguing that the dinners were “informal” and “linked to his functions”. “I have nothing to feel ashamed of,” he said, adding that he had ensured lower-budget receptions during time as Assembly president. In remarks that immediately inspired memes, De Rugy also said that he was “lobster intolerant” and “disgusted by champagne”.

Although impressively creative, this defence was less effective in regards to the other revelations, which all touched De Rugy’s private life. The minister was found to have spent more than €63,000 of public funds on renovations to his official accommodation, all of which were considered unnecessary, including €35,390 for new mural paintings, €3,200 for carpets, €1,400 for wooden floors, €6,000 for the bathroom and even a dressing room worth €17,000.

As the scandal unfolded, more details on the couple’s taste for “comfort” emerged. Ministers are usually allowed two drivers, but a third one was provided to De Rugy, newspaper Le Parisien revealed. In what was perhaps the most decadent detail of all, De Rugy’s wife Séverine allegedly bought a €499 golden hairdryer with public money. A vast office at the Hôtel de Lassay was also refurbished to “welcome the children of the De Rugy couple” (it’s unclear whether the National Assembly or the De Rugys footed the bill). Meanwhile, since 2016, De Rugy has been renting a flat near Nantes, his former constituency, which qualifies as social housing and is priced accordingly.

In isolation, all of these acts are embarrassing enough. Taken together, they paint a picture of a public official funding a luxury lifestyle with the aid of public money. It does not help that the couple were already reported last year to have expensed a €700 exercise bike because De Rugy “could not go out to run for security reasons”, and a €200 machine to make cheese-based raclette meals, used for “cabinet leaving-dos”.

Whether or not this truly reflects De Rugy’s lifestyle does not matter — what does is that a minister to Macron (who himself has been nicknamed the “president of the ultra-rich”) deemed it acceptable to spend several times the average French salary to renovate a flat and throw luxury dinner parties. Indeed, a significant portion of the population reports struggling to get by at the end of each month and some have spent six months marching in the streets in an attempt to stun the authorities into action. 

De Rugy, having received the renewed support of both President Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, refused to resign and instead fired his chief of staff, who was deemed responsible for not spotting the social housing imbroglio (she told the media that De Rugy had tried to “save his head by offering [hers]”). 

Lobsters, such as the ones De Rugy seems fond of enjoying, are best cooked in water slowly brought to ebullition. The environment minister might merely represent a broader problem of politics and public money, but he indeed finds himself in hot water. 

When gilets jaunes protesters, after weeks of relatively small, subdued marches, showed up again on the Champs-Élysées to boo Emmanuel Macron at the Bastille Day parade, they waved signs reading “we want lobsters and wine too” and mixed their usual “Macron resignation” chants with a new verse: “De Rugy in prison”

The scandal ends a more favourable period for Macron — his approval ratings recently recovered to pre-protest levels. The president is expected to soon introduce his pensions reform and is believed to be planning further cuts to housing benefit, which is provided to low-income renters. Imposing austerity policies while retaining a minister accused of misusing public funds might prove a stretch even for Macron’s sacred “at the same time” discourse.

Whether or not De Rugy resigns, the president’s promise of an “exemplary attitude” in politics is defunct. By refusing to remove his minister, Macron confirms the gilets jaunes’ belief that he cares little for their opinions. The intensity of the protests may have faded. But the gap between the president and the French merely keeps widening.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.