INTERNATIONAL

French PM caught `flouting' holiday order

PARIS, AUG. 14. The official holiday portraits showed France's Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, at his family's mountain retreat, studying a book with great seriousness, the French Alps clearly visible on the horizon.

The photoshoot was nicely staged — documents on the table, a mobile phone within reach — and was meant to send the clear message that France's Government would not be slacking this summer.

So there was embarrassment in his press office when it emerged a few days later that Mr. Raffarin had not after all spent his entire break in France, but had slipped away for a clandestine trip to a friend's villa in Portugal.

Secrecy

The secrecy was necessary because the French Prime Minister, like all his Cabinet colleagues, was this year under strict instructions from President Jacques Chirac to keep his holiday ``short and studious,'' and, crucially, to stay within two hours of his office in Paris.

After rifling through Air France timetables, journalists at the satirical weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine pointed out that Mr. Raffarin had clearly flouted the President's order because the Portugese Algarve was well beyond the two-hour travel limit.

Mr. Raffarin's press office was obliged to retract its initial misleading denials of the trip, and admitted that he had been to stay with Yves Galland, an old friend and head of Boeing France, between July 29 and August 1.

A spokesman insisted that it had been a personal visit and that the Prime Minister's office ``was not in the business of commenting on private trips.''

But when a Liberation reporter asked why, if that were the case, the Prime Minister's holiday in the Alps had been the subject of so much media fanfare, the press officer responded with some confusion: ``That's the first time we've been asked that ... This was all decided very quickly.''

Sensitive issue

The indiscretion has become a sensitive issue for the Government, still chastened by last summer's political debacle when Ministers were pictured basking at the seaside while almost 15,000 citizens were dying in an unprecedented heatwave. Mr. Raffarin came in for particularly harsh criticism for his failure to leave his Alpine villa during the crisis.

Under instructions to prove that the Government does not shut down for August, the French Cabinet's most senior members have now launched a public relations offensive, determined to outdo each other with their hyperactivity during the break. Every news item has been accompanied by a chorus of sympathy or condemnation from the Ministers, who are falling over each other in enthusiasm to be filmed breaking off their holiday to respond to an emergency. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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