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OPINION

Eye on France: Another heatwave, another political scandal

Drought and high temperatures forecast for most of France.
Drought and high temperatures forecast for most of France. AFP Photos/GEORGES GOBET

We’re feeling the heat as France sizzles under record temperatures for the second time this summer. But the disgraced environment minister, François de Rugy, might be feeling a bit more cooked than the rest of us.

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We’ll start with the weather report.

This latest heatwave is building from the south-west, and is expected to affect most of the country by Thursday. Even if the overall temperature is likely to be lower than in June, certain areas are warned that they could experience record-breaking peaks. That’s the case for Paris, for example, where the national weather forecaster has indicated that the all-time record of 40.4°C, set in July, 1947, is in danger of being broken.

Apart from the discomfort, the repeated heatwaves are causing major problems for French farmers. They have very little water to irrigate crops, and they have practically no grass to feed their cattle.

The government has promised to help...by asking the European Union to increase the amount awarded to French farmers in the next payout under the Common Agricultural Policy. That money won’t be available until mid-October, and is just an advance on cash the farmers would expect to get anyway.

Paris has also promised to reactivate the national catastrophe regulations under which 196 million euros was paid last year to struggling farmers.

State of natural disaster declared

In the worst affected regions, the declaration of a state of natural disaster will allow animals to be pastured on land that is supposed to be resting. Nearly one third of French departments are concerned, with the danger that there’ll be no source of emergency food to draw on in the event of another heatwave or continued dry weather.

Many farmers have already started using the hay stocked for next winter. The state has agreed to pay for the transport of animal feed from areas with a surplus to areas in need.

The hope is that last year’s desperate situation, where animals were sent to the abattoir because there was nothing left to feed them, can be avoided.

Another insidious and surprising aspect of the drought is that extremely dry soil can cause structural damage to buildings as foundations settle. But the problem can take years to become evident, and the damage, potentially enormous, is not covered by existing legislation or insurance.

An expert interviewed by the French daily Libération says four million French homes are threatened.

And, even if your house does not fall down, the failure by successive French governments to take proper preventive measures, says the same expert, means that you will probably be drowned by flooding or a rise in the sea level, or carried away in a landslide, or swept off in a storm.

So much for the good news.

Mixed news for ex-ecology minister

François de Rugy, the former environment minister, forced out of his job last week in the wake of claims that he was throwing away public money on lobster dinners for his mates, and on re-decorating his ministerial apartment, might have thought he was off the hook.

Two official investigations, to be published tomorrow, will say that the expensive dinners were, in fact, official functions and that the quality of the food and drink consumed was consistent with de Rugy’s status as president of the National Assembly, and the calibre of his guests. As for the money spent tarting up his official residence, the investigation concludes that 63,000 euros was a snip, specialised work on a listed building over three hundred years old not coming cheap.

So far, so good. But why, if he’s that innocent, did de Rugy resign?

It turns out that there’s a third accusation against the former minister. It is alleged by Mediapart that he used some of his government expenses to finance the green party Europe Ecology.

The problem is that he also appears to have deducted the money, a total of 9,200 euros, from his tax statement, even though government expenses are automatically excluded from income tax.

De Rugy's parliamentary colleague, Damien Adam, says that such a procedure is obviously wrong. If it turns out to be true, Adam continues, then de Rugy did the right thing by resigning.

François de Rugy has made no statement on the latest claims. But he has begun legal proceedings for defamation against Mediapart.

Political weaklings, media tyrants

Right-wing Le Figaro says the de Rugy case proves that we are threatened by a two-headed monster: political weakness and media tyranny.

On one side, little masters who have been given access to fancy offices, unlimited service, great grub, expense accounts, police escorts. Not everyone manages to keep the privileges in perspective.

The media monster is even more dangerous, says Le Figaro, because the victims are frequently executed before being properly tried.

Le Monde wonders what would have happened in some neighbouring countries if the de Rugy rumours had surfaced there.

In Norway and Sweden, apparently, he’d have been out through the ministry’s revolving door the minute the first accusation was made.

Sweden sacked a minister for buying a Toblerone with her government credit card. There, the rule seems to be: resign first, prove your innocence later.

They do things differently in the United Kingdom, as the imminence of Boris Johnson as prime minister so colourfully proves. You could swallow the Crown Jewels on prime time TV and get away with a denial or an apology, suggests Le Monde, mainly because of the fact that resignations lead to by-elections. And those are dangerous affairs, especially in these days of narrow governing majorities.

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