PARIS: A senior French cabinet minister defiantly vowed on Friday (Jul 12) to stay in his job despite fresh claims he used the public purse to fund an extravagant lifestyle including lobster feasts.
Environment Minister Francois de Rugy has endured a torrid week after the Mediapart investigative website said he hosted lavish dinners - allegedly for friends - while serving as parliament speaker.
Piling on the pressure, Mediapart published a new report saying that Rugy rented a council flat with subsidised rent in western France, even though his salary was "far higher" than the maximum allowed for such aid.
But Rugy, who also holds the portfolio of minister of state which makes him the government number two after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe - insisted he was not shifting, even if he had considered that option.
"Of course, you feel like giving up" when "you're attacked morning, noon and night," he said, close to tears in an interview on French TV channel BFM.
But he added: "I won't do that because I'm very angry when I read an article which claims I live in a council house."
"I have absolutely no reason to resign. That is what I have told the prime minister who has absolutely not called on me to do so," insisted Rugy, who had a two-hour meeting Thursday with Philippe.
The revelations come as the centrist government of President Emmanuel Macron looks to recover from six months of anti-government protests sparked by economic inequality and claims that French leaders are out of touch with ordinary people.
Mediapart said that the dinners hosted by Rugy included luxuries like lobster, champagne and vintage wines from parliament's cellar.
Most damagingly, it alleged that the dinners had little connection to his function and were essentially social gatherings hosted by his wife, a journalist with the people magazine Gala, and funded by the taxpayer.
On a visit Thursday to the central town of Deux-Sevres, the minister was met by a giant inflatable lobster and protesters brandishing slogans like "were the lobsters organic?"
Rugy has not denied the existence of the dinners - Mediapart listed a dozen between October 2017 and June 2018 - but insisted they were linked to his work, defending the gatherings as "informal working dinners".
He told BFM he has "never paid more than 30 euros for a bottle of wine", doesn't eat lobster because of a "shellfish allergy", and avoids champagne, which "gives him a headache".
In another blow, French daily Le Parisien reported Friday that Rugy's wife used public money to buy herself a golden hairdryer worth €499 (US$561). He said the claim was a "lie".
Rugy suggested someone had an axe to grind against his wife, slating Mediapart for indulging a "fantasy of lopping off heads" in seeking to portray her as a kind of "Marie-Antoinette." Whoever that person was, he said, was looking to "settle scores".
Rugy said he was the victim of "a machine launched to attack me" but pledged to "pay back every euro disputed".
He also did not deny renting the apartment near Nantes in western France, but insisted his landlord and letting agency never told him it was social housing.
"Never in my life have I applied for a council flat," he said.
Philippe's office said Thursday it had asked for an enquiry into a separate Mediapart report into €63,000 (US$71,000) worth of renovations in Rugy's townhouse in Paris' chic seventh district.
Mediapart, which was founded in 2008 by former Le Monde editor-in-chief Edwy Plenel, has repeatedly published stories that have made it a thorn in the side of the establishment and triggered investigations.
In a separate scandal, Rugy sacked his chief of staff Wednesday after claims she kept a council flat in Paris for 12 years when she was working elsewhere in the country.
Nicole Klein insisted the flat was her "main residence" but admitted she did not move out because of "convenience and carelessness", she told French daily Ouest France.