Minister is target for echoes of Revolution envy
One needs the proverbial heart of stone not to crease up at the fate of François de Rugy, until recently France’s Ecology Minister, forced to resign because of his passion for lobsters, fine wines, extravagant interior decoration and (an alleged) gold-plated hairdryer.
M de Rugy joined the Macron administration when the last ecology minister, Nicolas Hulot, walked out over his dissatisfaction with the way Macronisme pursued its environmental goals.
M de Rugy, by contrast, left the Green party because he thought it was becoming too left-wing. Given his interest in the fruits (and the fruits de mer) of capitalism, it is easy to see why he was worried. Even a Thatcherite party would seem too lefty for him.
There was an old joke in Britain about trade union leaders enjoying the high life when invited to swish receptions by Labour governments, saying that ‘nothing’s too good for the workers’.
Manifestly M de Rugy felt that nothing was too good for an eco-warrior, though perhaps he should – as we quote the vignerons of Alsace complaining (see p16) – have learned better to pair his fine wines with his fine food.
Hard though it is to believe, the French media generally treat their political class with more deference that their British counterparts do theirs. That is why some French leaders have got away with outrageous behaviour, especially in financial terms, that would have ended the career of a British prime minister.
That, though, is changing in the age of the internet: M de Rugy was brought down by the investigative Mediapart website, which secured all the gory details of his lavishness and went to town on them.
Many of the alleged offences (these were moral, and not criminal, failings) were committed when he was speaker of the Assemblée Nationale, and he says – with some justification – that he had to entertain officially in a style worthy of the French nation, keeping the country’s end up in front of its guests.
And, if you are representing the lower chamber of a legislature of a country that has given the world some of the finest drinks ever invented, and whose collations of crustacés are famed throughout civilisation, you cannot expect to serve dignitaries a three-euro rosé and croques messieurs.
M de Rugy duly made all these protests, but to no avail.
In the era of the gilets jaunes, and the straightjacket imposed on the French economy by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, French hearts have hardened; this is no longer the mindset of the trente glorieuses, that period of consumerism and affluence in the 30 years after the Second World War that seemed to wipe out the envy of and bitterness at the success of others that echo through the pages of Balzac and Flaubert.
It is the seething of 1789, the tricoteuses [the group of women who famously knitted while watching guillotine executions] and a sense of easily-triggered offence and disgust at those who live high off the hog: it is as if Marie Antoinette herself has returned to pronounce ‘qu’ils mangent des langoustes’ for those who can’t afford a whole lobster.
In short, it has turned out to be the perfect opportunity for the French to let off steam about their general sense of disentitlement, by finding a conveniently over-entitled scapegoat and making a public exhibition of him.
What should worry every other member of France’s political class is that the appetite grows with eating: no sooner has M de Rugy’s head dropped in the basket than the search is on for the next misbehaving politician or functionary to feed the beast.
It is a useful moment to pause and ask why this sentiment has arisen. François Mitterrand was partial to hoovering up ortolans, illegal though it is to hunt and trap the protected birds, and managed by means still largely unclear to fund a baroque private life.
Jacques Chirac’s misuse of public funds as Mayor of Paris did not prevent him becoming President of the Republic; Alain Juppé’s misdemeanours on M Chirac’s behalf led to criminal charges and a conviction, but did not prevent M Juppé from becoming a highly successful Mayor of Bordeaux and a contender for the presidency in 2017.
And as for Sarko: the jury has yet to go out in the matter of Le président du bling, but he got away with living at a lick M de Rugy could only dream of for the five years he was in the Elysée.
For decades the French public have put up with such abuses of the money they pay in taxes, and with a bloated public payroll that seems to exist to create jobs for over-educated bureaucrats and technocrats.
No wonder the men who drive tractors and the women who work in supermarkets are fighting back, and M de Rugy has provided them with a perfect target.
There is an irony that l’affaire des homards happened just as France – or large portions of France – were packing up for their annual summer holidays, where two weeks seem to stretch effortlessly into three.
Those who holiday in France see no signs of this, because the resorts they flock to teem with hard-working waiters, cooks, chambermaids and others who make holidays enjoyable.
But perhaps it should occur more to those despising M de Rugy that France’s economy would be even bigger, and there would be prosperity to go round, if they didn’t have the annual shutdown, or the 35-hour week: there is still too much unreconstructed practice in French economic life whose removal would, quite quickly, make everybody better off.
Le Figaro, showing that the comparisons with the mood of 1789 and thereafter are not exaggerations, talked after M de Rugy’s resignation of the ‘idéal robespierriste’ that has once more flared up and renewed demands for politicians to be ‘irreproachable’.
Irreproachability is a nice idea, and sometimes, perhaps, politicians do get carried away. I suspect, though, if Robespierre were around today the first thing he would do is end the 35-hour week.
Bonnes vacances à tous!
Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs