France's Sarkozy attacked over luxury cruise

PARIS (Reuters) - Incoming French leader Nicolas Sarkozy was embroiled in a row over his stay on a luxury yacht on Tuesday, two days after winning election with a campaign to lift low wages and help hard-working families.

France's President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy jogs near Delimara in the south of Malta May 8, 2007. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

After Sunday’s victory, Sarkozy dined with friends in a top Paris restaurant then jetted off with his family to a luxury yacht off the Mediterranean island of Malta, as staffers worked on strategy for June parliamentary polls and a cabinet line-up.

Sarkozy aides said the break would allow the president-elect acclimatize to his new role as head of state, but critics said it clashed with his campaign concerns over low living standards of French households.

“It sends a disastrous signal to the country, notably the 53 percent of French people who earn less than 800 euros a month and who voted for him,” said Patrick Menucci, a former advisor to defeated Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal.

LCI television said the vessel cost 200,000 euros ($271,300) a week to hire and Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a European deputy of the centrist UDF party, attacked the stay as a “needlessly ostentatious luxury”.

A Sarkozy aide could not confirm the yacht belonged to media mogul Vincent Bollore. During his campaign, critics attacked Sarkozy’s close ties to France’s media barons.

Sarkozy was expected to return to Paris for Thursday’s commemoration of the abolition of slavery, a gesture to those opposed to his selective immigration policies and angered by his hardline policies during his time as interior minister.

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The yacht row will be an unwelcome distraction for Sarkozy, who needs a strong majority from June elections to the National Assembly to back a reform effort led by his new prime minister.

British government sources quoted by the Financial Times appeared to confirm an open secret that Francois Fillon will get the job. The daily said Sarkozy had introduced Fillon as France’s next prime minister during a phone call with British leader Tony Blair on Sunday. A Sarkozy aide declined to comment.

If confirmed in office when Sarkozy takes power on May 16, Fillon will face union opposition to the new leaders’ plan for a mandatory minimum service during public sector transport strikes and secret ballots after eight days of strike action.

The major Force Ouvriere union warned on Monday any attempt to drive through change without consultation could backfire, raising questions about Sarkozy’s ability to effect major change without provoking a wave of debilitating protests.

“Nicolas Sarkozy has no intention at all of ramming things through,” his right-hand man Claude Gueant told LCI television.

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“He has clearly said that he would consult the social partners (unions and employers’ groups) to work out the modalities of a dialogue” due in September, Gueant said.

Sarkozy’s team continued to rally UDF lawmakers to his cause with pledges not to run candidates against those who back the new president’s reforms.

The ruling conservatives wants to isolate the centrist outfit’s leader Francois Bayrou, a harsh Sarkozy critic who came third in the presidential election and who launches a new party this week.

Francois Hollande, leader of the Socialists who face a tough legislative battle after losing their third straight presidential election, meanwhile urged an end to anti-Sarkozy protests after a second night of sporadic violence.

Police said 365 cars were destroyed in Paris and provincial towns, half Sunday’s total. Some 160 people were arrested.

“There can be anger, there can be frustration, but the only way to react is to take up the ballot, not other instruments,” Hollande told RTL radio.

Additional reporting by Pascal Lietout