Top French minister resigns over alleged lavish lifestyle

The No. 2 in the French government has resigned over reports that he has been living a lavish lifestyle at the expense of France's taxpayers

PARIS -- The No. 2 official in the French government resigned Tuesday following media reports that he has been living a lavish lifestyle at taxpayer expense, including hosting lobster and Champagne soirees and ordering up exorbitant renovations of his ministerial apartment.

With the French yellow vest backlash against the elite political system still fresh in the public mind, support for Ecology Minister Francois de Rugy ebbed as new stories emerged.

Rugy said he filed a defamation lawsuit Tuesday morning over the "media attacks" that forced him to step down from his post, which is second in the Cabinet after the prime minister.

Rugy has been the object of criticism in the week since investigative news site Mediapart reported that he and his wife hosted lavish dinners for friends while he served as president of the lower house of parliament.

After his appointment in September as ecology minister, Rugy reportedly spent some 60,000 euros ($68,000) to refurbish his government apartment. He fired his top aide after Mediapart reported she kept a public rent-controlled apartment vacant, rather than using it as a primary residence as required. Then Mediapart reported that Rugy had done the same thing.

He said he filed the defamation complaint for what he called "untruths" published by Mediapart since last week based on "stolen photos, gossip, approximations."

"There is no doubt about the will to harm, dirty, demolish," the ex-minister's statement said.

Rugy, 45, was named president of the National Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament, in June 2017 after President Emmanuel Macron's election.

He took on the important post of ecology minister in September after his predecessor, TV star Nicolas Hulot, resigned in frustration at not being able to carry out his mission as he saw fit.

Living off the fat of the coffers of the French republic is nothing new. But the scandal surrounding Rugy gained special momentum because of President Emmanuel Macron's bid to clean house. In September 2017, on national television, he signed into law two measures to put morals into public life four months after taking office, fulfilling a campaign promise. The measures notably ban parliamentarians and members of the government from hiring family members and forces lawmakers to account for their spending, doing away with handsome monthly indemnities to be spent as they wished.

As National Assembly president, Rugy went further, introducing a series of rigorous measures to cut the individual spending of lawmakers, part of the clean-image campaign to ensure legislators set a good example.

Macron said he accepted the resignation so that Rugy "can defend himself fully and freely," BFMTV reported.

Mediapart published multiple stories about Rugy's expenses, including photos of lavish dinners featuring giant lobsters. The paper said wines served at the soirees were among the best in the renowned cellars of the National Assembly.

The prime minister summoned Rugy last week and ordered an investigation of the renovations at the minister's official apartment. A separate investigation was ordered of the dinner parties from his time as National Assembly president.

On Tuesday, Mediapart was preparing a new story alleging that Rugy had used 9,200 euros ($10,322) from his expense funds as a lawmaker to pay for his membership in the Greens party, which he has since left, and then claimed it as a tax deduction.

The site said Rugy had promised a response to the allegations by 2 p.m. Instead, he announced his resignation 40 minutes later.

"The surprise in all this is hypocrisy. We say one thing and do another," Mediapart chief editor and founder Edwy Plenel said on French channel BFMTV.

One lawmaker for Macron's party, Olivia Gregoire, denounced the opposition for pouncing on the minister before investigations were completed, and for judging him on photos without giving him the presumption of innocence.

Gregoire said on BFMTV that Rugy's resignation was proof not of guilt but that "he's had enough."