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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February, 2005, 19:52 GMT
Interview sealed French minister's fate
By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

File photograph of Herve Gaymard
Gaymard became an embarrassment for the government
It was an interview with Paris Match magazine this week that sealed the fate of Herve Gaymard, the French finance minister who has resigned after just three months in the job.

The words that condemned him were these: "I have always lived humbly. I do not have money.

"Obviously if I wasn't the son of a shoe-maker, if I was a member of the bourgeoisie, I wouldn't have any housing problem. I would own my own apartment and we wouldn't have this affair."

Up until this point, the minister - who is indeed by all accounts a hard-working man of modest origins - could probably have put the scandal behind him.

He could at least say he needed the 600 sq m apartment (6,000 sq ft) in a prime location off the Champs-Elysees, paid for at a cost to the taxpayer of 14,000 euros (9,000) a month, to house his family of eight children.

And then when he moved out of the apartment a week ago in response to public anger over the extravagance, he admitted he had made a mistake and promised to refund the money the state had spent on having it redone.

Things were still salvageable.

Wrong tone

But on Wednesday came the double-whammy.

First of all, the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine followed up its original scoop with the news that Mr Gaymard actually owns a flat in central Paris.

And then came that interview with Paris Match, in which he appeared to say exactly the opposite.

More than the facts, it was the tone that was all wrong.

The last thing Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin needed was to hand the opposition a new cudgel to beat him with
Technically, he could argue that the flat he has in Paris is too small for his large family and is being rented out in any case, so he was not telling a lie.

But the impression was left of man being cavalier with the truth, and of a minister utterly out of touch with the nation.

As finance minister, it was Mr Gaymard who coined the phrase just a few weeks ago about the need to "wean the country off public expenditure" - an unfortunate remark in the circumstances.

It was also part of his responsibilities to regulate the housing market, so he could not be unaware of the enormous difficulties facing families as they seek affordable accommodation.

And on Friday morning, there was more bad economic news. Unemployment broke through the symbolic 10% mark, which did not help in the battle of communication.

But what made the minister's position worse is that - of all governments - this one in particular needs to be like Caesar's wife, above reproach.

Herve Gaymard's flat in Paris
The minister owned a smaller flat which he rented out
Under Jacques Chirac, the right became associated in the 1990s with a succession of sleaze scandals, some of them centred, like this one, on the abuse of state-paid apartments.

After the even more overt corruption under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, the public's opinion of politicians sank to an all-time low. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin had at least recognised the problem and done his best to rectify it.

Now the disastrous impression has been reinforced of a self-serving caste of leaders who follow their own moral codes, cut off from the concerns of mere citizens.

With his unpopular administration trying to push through unpopular reforms - and with a growing climate of public discontent over the economy - the last thing Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin needed was to hand the opposition a new cudgel to beat him with.

But that is what Herve Gaymard had become, so he had to go.


SEE ALSO:
French minister in flat scandal
17 Feb 05 |  Europe


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