Under-fire French PM to repay part of Champions League trip

Under-fire French PM to repay part of Champions League trip
French Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls

PARIS - France's Socialist prime minister sought Thursday to calm a storm of controversy over a trip to the Champions League final with his two sons by pledging to refund part of the cost.

The popular Manuel Valls has seen his clean-cut image tarnished by last weekend's junket to Berlin on a government jet despite insisting he was on official business.

And on a visit to the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, Valls sought to repair the damage.

"Since this was an official trip, I used the means available to a prime minister," said the 52-year-old Valls.

"But I am of course sensitive to the reaction of the French people and I have to behave in a completely rigorous way. If the chance came up again, I wouldn't do it again.

"And to remove any doubt, I have decided to pay the costs for my two children, amounting to 2,500 euros (S$3,769)."

Born in Barcelona and an FC Barcelona fan, Valls said he was at the match - which his team won 3-1 against Juventus - to talk with UEFA chief Michel Platini about the Euro 2016 championships to be held in France.

But the trip has gone down badly in a country struggling through an economic crisis with more than 10 per cent unemployment.

A jubilant opposition has seized on the trip to denounce Valls as a prime minister out of touch with the daily reality of the French people. Valls added fuel to the fire by talking about his "passion" for football and insisting he was entitled to moments of relaxation given his hectic workload.

An opinion poll published on Wednesday showed that more than three out of four French people were "shocked" by the trip, which cost up to 15,000 euros according to government sources.

The prime minister said that taking his children on the flight "did not cost a single euro more".

A 'wise' decision

Government allies rallied to his support, with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius saying the pledge to pay back the cash was "wise" and should "close down" the controversy.

"The prime minister's trip itself was completely justifiable and when you go on a trip as prime minister... there are always bodyguards, etc," Fabius said on French news channel BFMTV.

"It's behind us." But the affair continues to rumble on in the French press, with both Le Monde and Liberation dailies choosing the same footballing headline for their editorial - "foul".

The l'Opinion daily criticised a "serious mistake" by Valls which "damages his credibility, his authority, his ability to act" while right-wing Le Figaro judged the impact on the prime minister "disastrous".

Communication expert Arnaud Dupui-Casteres said: "They should have been transparent from the start."

He noted that the private jet is a symbol "like cigars or the size of one's apartment.

There are subjects on which public opinion is very sensitive."

One of the main difficulties for Valls is that his Socialist government has upbraided right-wing opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy for his perceived flashy lifestyle.

"The real communication problem Manuel Valls has today is that the left attacked (President) Francois Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy for his 'bling bling' practices and people now realise that these practices are continuing," said Dupui-Casteres.

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