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Jokes and anger in France over Sarkozy pay rise

PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy came under fire on Wednesday for hiking his own salary by 140 percent while ordinary French people are struggling to cope with soaring prices for bread, milk and cheese.

Lawmakers voted late on Tuesday to raise his salary from 8,457 euros (5,889 pounds) -- about 6,000 euros after tax -- to 19,331 euros a month or 240,000 a year, putting him on a par with his prime minister, Francois Fillon.

The government said the previous salary system was opaque, as the president drew on different funds to complement his official pay, and the reform would bring some much-needed transparency to the presidential budget.

But the timing could not have been worse, with unions already up in arms over government efforts to chip away at some of their longstanding privileges and households increasingly complaining about the rising cost of living.

“The effect is disastrous,” said Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg, who contrasted Sarkozy’s handsome award with the erosion of ordinary people’s living standards.

“It’s an insult to poverty,” he told the daily Le Monde.

Official data released on Wednesday showed that record oil prices and sharp increases in the cost of basic foods such as baguettes had pushed consumer confidence to a seven-month low.

“The link between the increase in the pay of the president ... and the stagnation of the purchasing power of the French is especially shocking,” said another Socialist MP, Jean Launay.

Sarkozy’s pay rise also won him an instant ribbing on “Les Guignols”, a popular satirical television puppet show.

It portrayed the president, who has been on a two-day visit to the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, as sporting sunglasses while looking for a luxury home.

Asked if, politically, now was the right time for such a large pay increase, the Sarkozy puppet tells an interviewer: “Now’s a great time, if I find a villa today and we get started on the building work, it’ll be ready for the summer.”

Sarkozy’s chief of staff Claude Gueant played down the row. “I’m convinced the French think it’s normal that the president earns the same as the prime minister. It’s an exceptional amount of responsibility,” he told France Inter radio.

Sarkozy himself told reporters in Corsica that he had earned more in his previous job as interior minister, and suggested that previous presidents had supplemented their income from the general presidential budget.

“I only wanted to introduce some transparency. Until now, the president of the republic set his own salary,” he was quoted as saying by Le Monde.

But “Les Guignols” neatly encapsulated the public relations problem, having the prime minister signing Sarkozy’s pay cheque but adding: “Could you hold off cashing it, things are a little tight right now.”