From the sunday times:
“His aides have warned him against designer sunglasses and “flashy” behaviour, but President Nicolas Sarkozy could not resist this latest indulgence. The French leader is to have his own version of the American president’s Air Force One aircraft, complete with luxury sleeping quarters, office and conference room.
Whether or not he wants to name the plane Marianne, symbol of the French republic, Sarkozy has his sights set on an Airbus 330-200. It is expected to cost the state about £150m and will be able to fly twice as far without refuelling as the jets that he normally uses.
A fashion designer will be commissioned to redesign the interior while Carla Bruni, the president’s Italian singer wife, is expected to take charge of the project.
Sarkozy, 53, who pledged to modernise France through a series of social and economic reforms, has been planning the purchase for months. He is said to be eager to have his own plane in time for France’s takeover of the European Union’s rotating six-month presidency in July, when he effectively becomes the leader of Europe.
Having his own aircraft will certainly put Sarkozy ahead of the British: the government announced in March that it was dropping plans for a long-haul private plane for use by senior ministers and the royal family, having concluded that it would be too costly.
The hyper-energetic Sarkozy is also expected in China in August for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and is determined to avoid the indignity of refuelling stops. On his first official trip to China last year, he was obliged to land in Siberia while the press flew nonstop to Beijing in a much larger plane.
His own aircraft would also spare him the embarrassment of having to go cap in hand to his bil-lionaire businessmen friends who have lent him jets in the past.
Yet the plan to splash out on a new plane has raised eyebrows, particularly as the government promotes reforms to reduce public spending. It was announced last week that one in every five French embassies was likely to see its budget cut and the number of countries receiving French development aid would be cut to between 30 and 40 from more than 100.
A designer aircraft seemed to contradict recent efforts by Sarkozy to get away from his image as “President Bling-Bling” – a figure addicted to flashy watches and luxury travel. It had seemed to make a mockery of the acute public anxiety about dwindling purchasing power and had resulted in a catastrophic drop in his approval rating.
Growing public approval for Bruni, 40, who is widely regarded as a steadying influence on the volatile leader, is credited with halting the drop in the opinion polls. As she prepares to bring out her latest album next month, the president’s aides have talked excitedly of the “Carla effect”.
One cartoon last week summed up the widespread sense of how much she has helped him by showing her entering Sarkozy’s office and saying: “I’ve won you five points [in the polls]. Don’t spend them too quickly.”
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The aircraft was not the only item of presidential expenditure attracting close scrutiny. A Socialist MP campaigning to make the presidency more accountable over its generous budget complained that spending by the Elysée went up 8%, from £26m to £28m, in 2007 because of the hiring of extra staff, the remodelling of parts of the presidential palace and a jump in Sarkozy’s salary.
Some see this as the price to pay for a “hyper-presidency”: in his first year in office “Sarko” has shown a passion for visiting foreign countries unrivalled by any predecessor. Various presidential vehicles and aircraft clocked up 280,000 miles last year, a dramatic increase over 2006 when Jacques Chirac rarely ventured out of the palace.
One aide estimated that presidential activity had gone up by 300% since Chirac’s day, when France seemed to be slumbering. At the same time, expenditure on wine has dropped by 44% under Sarkozy, who is teetotal. He is also spending 40% less than Chirac on “diplomatic gifts”.
This seemed to be setting the right example. The government announced reforms last week that were intended to allow savings of some £6 billion a year by 2012.
One of the measures was Sarkozy’s election pledge to replace only one out of every two public sector workers when they retired.
The government also announced that it planned to change the way that it finances universities next year, allocating money on the basis of academic performance rather than size. This is expected to provoke another wave of protests after a series of big demonstrations in recent months against plans to cut the number of teachers.
Under the circumstances, the government had not been planning to make public Sarkozy’s plans to acquire a plane. It confirmed the details, however, after they were leaked to the press.
Luc Chatel, a spokesman, defended the project on the grounds that some planes in the fleet used by the leader, such as an Airbus A319, had been in service for many years.
“The maintenance cost of the planes,” he said, “means renewing them is less expensive.”