Sailing Isn't So Smooth For Sarkozy

President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy, left, is resting with his family off Malta aboard a yacht that belongs to a billionaire friend. Critics have seized on the trip as an image of excess from a politician who promised to be the
President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy, left, is resting with his family off Malta aboard a yacht that belongs to a billionaire friend. Critics have seized on the trip as an image of excess from a politician who promised to be the "president of the people." (By Lino Azzopardi -- Associated Press)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 10, 2007

PARIS, May 9 -- Nicolas Sarkozy won the French presidency Sunday, told his countrymen to start working harder, then promptly took his family for a cruise on a billionaire buddy's 200-foot yacht off the coast of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea.

Thus the first scandal of the Sarkozy presidency was born. Political opponents called the timing and the opulence of the vacation "indecent." Wednesday's newspapers carried grainy front-page photographs of President-elect Sarkozy in saffron shorts with his 10-year-old son, Louis, standing on the deck of what one headline dubbed "the floating palace."

"I have no intention of apologizing," a defiant Sarkozy, 52, told a pool of French journalists Wednesday morning after jogging on a small island off the Malta coast. "I'll be president of the republic in eight days. In theory I could have rested for eight days, but I'll only take two and one-half. No one can argue with that."

And it's not as if he's just been lounging on the yacht, whose amenities include an on-deck hot tub. "I met with the Malta president and received 20 calls from international leaders," Sarkozy said, his black T-shirt soaked in sweat.

But the controversy is not about the vacation -- this is a country that reveres holidays. It's about the image of excess, according to analysts and politicians, from a politician who promised three days ago to be the "president of the people." It's about Sarkozy's longtime cozy relationships with France's rich and famous and what that means for the future independence of the presidency. It's about the French disdain of ostentatious displays of wealth and suspicion of the wealthy.

It didn't help that anarchists, losing Socialist Party sympathizers and angry youths have been clashing with police on the streets of Paris and other major French cities for the last three nights in protest of Sarkozy's victory Sunday.

François Hollande, the Socialist Party leader and the common-law husband of failed Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, said Sarkozy certainly deserved a family vacation after the grueling campaign.

"What causes a problem is the style of the holiday," Hollande said. "The fact that he is on the boat of a rich businessman and we don't know today if the republic is assuming the cost of the trip."

The gleaming white yacht Paloma, with its 12 staterooms, is owned by Vincent Bolloré, a 55-year-old billionaire who Forbes magazine lists as No. 13 among France's wealthiest citizens. A longtime friend of Sarkozy, Bolloré owns an advertising company, television station, and transportation and logistics businesses and has personal wealth estimated at $2.1 billion.

Sarkozy bristled Wednesday at criticism of their friendship. "I've known Vincent Bolloré for 20 years," he said. "He's invited me for 20 years and I've refused for 20 years. Vincent Bolloré is a great French industrialist. He's never worked with the state."

Sarkozy added that his use of the yacht "didn't cost the taxpayers one cent."

The French news media were quick to point out Wednesday that the sleek craft -- which comes with two jet skis, kayaks and diving equipment and an elegant dining room with a wall-mounted plasma screen television -- would rent for up to $38,000 a day on the commercial yachting market.


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