After Tunisia and Egypt trips, Sarkozy orders ministers to vacation at home

President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered his ministers to vacation in France in a bid to defuse a scandal over recent trips to Egypt and Tunisia by senior ministers.

Sarkozy's announcement followed accusations by his political opponents that France's international standing was suffering as a result of trips by Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie to Egypt and Tunisia respectively.

The French media had a field day Wednesday running front-page photos of Fillon and Alliot-Marie with headlines such as "Fillon Government Experiencing Heavy Turbulence"

The weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine revealed that Alliot-Marie vacationed in Tunisia amid the wave of violent popular protests that toppled the North African nation's autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Alliot-Marie, accused of cozy relations with Ben Ali, later acknowledged accepting a ride in a private plane owned by a Tunisian businessman during her 2010 year-end holiday. She insisted the man was a personal friend and a victim of the regime, not a supporter.

Alliot-Marie also came under fire during the protests for offering French police know-how to Tunisian security forces, while the death toll of demonstrators killed by Tunisian police mounted.

Fillon acknowledged late Tuesday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak provided his family free lodging, a plane flight and an outing on the Nile during their Dec. 26-Jan. 2 vacation in Egypt.

The trip came shortly before the mass protests aimed at ousting Mubarak.

While Paris was sluggish to respond as the tide turned against Ben Ali in Tunisia, France was among European governments calling last week for a quick democratic transition in Egypt in response to the protests.

Sarkozy, according to one newspaper report, was on the verge of firing Alliot-Marie over the matter when news of Fillon's trip emerged, Reuters reported.

Elsewhere in Europe, it would be almost inconceivable for politicians to accept junkets paid by foreign governments.

In a statement issued after the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the French president said that from now on any foreign invitations to ministers would have to be cleared by the prime minister and the president’s own diplomatic office. 

“Contemporary demands in matters of public morality have considerably strengthened in recent years. What was common a few years ago can shock today,” the president said, according to the Financial Times. “We must understand this and draw the consequences. From now on, for their holidays, members of the government should favor France.”