French energy minister stays on despite lobster scandal

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s environment minister is prepared to reimburse any undue expense from lavish lobster-and-wine dinners he hosted when parliament speaker, his boss said on Thursday, ratifying Francois de Rugy’s position despite widespread public disgust.

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Investigative website Mediapart said in reports this week that De Rugy and his wife hosted a dozen luxury dinners, mostly for friends, at his official residence in central Paris when speaker from June 2017 to October 2018.

The story raised questions over use of taxpayers’ money and reinforced perceptions of an out-of-touch government when President Emmanuel Macron is already fighting a “president of the rich” label from his pro-business policies.

Pictures of giant lobsters on a candle-lit table and De Rugy enjoying a Valentine’s Day dinner at a table covered in rose petals have outraged many in France.

His troubles were compounded on Thursday when Mediapart said taxpayers paid 63,000 euros ($71,000) for the renovation of his government-provided apartment on the swanky Boulevard Saint-Germain on the bank of the River Seine.

Macron, who promised to clean up French politics, has already lost one environment minister last year over his perceived failure to make good on green policy promises, and faced months of “yellow vest” protests over high living costs.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s office said in a statement that an investigation would be held and any funds found to have been misused would be returned to government coffers.

“Francois de Rugy is aware of the legitimate emotion of our fellow citizens in this controversy and wants to leave no doubt. If any ambiguity was left after checks are made, he pledges to reimburse every single disputed euro,” he said.

De Rugy, 45, a former Green party member and environmental activist married to a gossip magazine journalist, initially offered no apology and called the aspersions “grotesque”.

“I assume full responsibility for the fact that a parliament speaker or a minister should be able to hold informal meetings over dinner with business leaders, cultural figureheads and university deans,” he said on Wednesday.

However, on Thursday, as the fallout grew, he said he was willing to “correct” any “error of judgment” he may have made.

He cut short a visit to western France on Thursday and was summoned to the prime minister’s office in the afternoon.

At least two former ministers had called for De Rugy’s resignation.

As ecology minister, De Rugy has helped burnish Macron’s environmental credentials at a time France is defending the Paris climate pact abroad. He is tasked with ensuring France’s transition to cleaner energy and reducing nuclear reliance.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne