By Edward Cody
Friday, June 25, 2010; A08
PARIS -- First, some government ministers were caught playing fast and loose with taxpayer money and influence peddling. Then the French soccer team proved better at bickering than scoring at the World Cup tournament in South Africa. And perhaps worst of all for this leisure-minded country, President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to make workers stay on the job longer before retirement.
It was in this depressed and increasingly sour political atmosphere that hundreds of thousands of striking workers took to the streets in nationwide protests Thursday to complain of government callousness and decry Sarkozy's plans to push back the retirement age from 60 to 62.
For the marchers, the stakes are high. Many workers have come to regard retiring at 60 as an inalienable guarantee of well-being since the benefit was added to France's social protection system 27 years ago under President François Mitterrand and his Socialist Party. But the protests had a broader political theme, reflecting outrage over mini-scandals that have raised questions about the judgment of some of Sarkozy's ministers in a time of scarcity and debt.
For instance, one junior minister charged taxpayers $15,000 for fancy Cuban cigars. Revelations of such peccadilloes have embarrassed Sarkozy as he repeatedly calls on the French to make sacrifices to overcome the global economic crisis and reduce his government's ballooning deficit.
"The ministers are the ones who should be working more," read a banner carried by protesters in Lyon, one of more than 100 communities in which demonstrators marched.
In addition, the country has sunk into a spell of national blues after the ridicule heaped on its backbiting soccer team. The team's antics at the World Cup were treated back home as an affront to national honor; a front-page editorial in the influential Le Monde newspaper compared it to the country's collapse in the face of German occupation troops in 1940.
"You have tarnished the image of France," Health and Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot said she told the disgraced players during a den-mother moment in the locker room Tuesday, shortly before they were eliminated from competition by a loss to South Africa.
Notorious for trying to do everything at once, Sarkozy at that point grabbed hold of the soccer crisis himself, deciding it required presidential leadership. He convoked an urgent meeting Wednesday at the Elysee Palace with Prime Minister François Fillon and Bachelot to review the country's soccer options.
Then he canceled appointments to make room for a meeting Thursday with Thierry Henry, the former team captain who, fresh from the plane trip home, wanted to give the president a personal account of the team's hapless performance and internal quarrels.
Accusing the president of misplaced priorities, François Chérèque, head of the French Labor Federation, demanded to know why Sarkozy was spending his time listening to "the emotions of a soccer player" when thousands of workers were marching in the streets nearby.
But the most serious threat to Sarkozy's standing seemed to come from revelations concerning Labor Minister Eric Woerth, the man in charge of setting the new retirement rules. According to tape recordings obtained by French news media, Woerth's wife, Florence, was employed to help manage the fortune of France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, at a time when Bettencourt had money stashed in Switzerland to avoid French taxes.
The news was particularly damaging because, before taking on the Labor Ministry and retirement reform, Woerth was Sarkozy's official in charge of taxes and a prominent advocate of prosecuting rich evaders. Moreover, as budget minister he had pinned the Légion d'Honneur medal on Bettencourt's main financial manager shortly before the manager hired Florence Woerth to assist him.
Florence Woerth denied she knew anything about the Swiss accounts, and Bettencourt issued a statement promising to get right with the tax man. Eric Woerth, meanwhile, denounced the revelations as "ignominious" attempts by the Socialist opposition to destabilize his retirement mission.
Despite the aggressive defense, Florence Woerth announced she was resigning from the Bettencourt team.
Alain Joyandet, Sarkozy's junior minister for foreign aid and French-speaking countries, got in another kind of trouble when the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported last week that he had profited from political connections to get around zoning restrictions to expand his St. Tropez summer villa.
Joyandet denounced the report as uninformed and unfair, saying he had the right documents for his exception to the zoning rules. But Wednesday the newspaper published the facsimile of a document in which the community's urban affairs chief had early on informed the mayor -- Joyandet's neighbor and political ally -- that the documents presented to get a permit seemed to be false.
Joyandet, who had already been criticized for a $125,000 plane charter at public expense, at that point said he was abandoning his plans for a second story on the St. Tropez villa. At the same time, Sarkozy's office announced that the cigar-loving junior minister for greater Paris, Christian Blanc, was being ordered to write a personal check for the luxury smokes.
The Elysee spokesmen said the president told all his ministers to cut back on expenses. To set the example, Sarkozy decided to cancel this year's Bastille Day garden party, an annual July 14 gathering of the Paris who's who on an elegant lawn behind the Elysee Palace. Last year's party reportedly cost the taxpayers nearly $1 million in champagne and finger food.