- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

PARIS — At a time when ordinary French men and women are facing a dearth of affordable housing, Herve Gaymard had a very sweet deal indeed.

Until last week, France’s 44-year-old finance minister and his extensive family and servants luxuriated in a 6,500-square-foot duplex in downtown Paris — roughly 12 times the size of apartments rented by many city couples.

The $18,500 monthly rent was paid by French taxpayers.

Today, Mr. Gaymard is camping out in a studio at his Left Bank Finance Ministry and battling calls for his resignation as the center-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin seeks to defuse a growing political scandal.

Things took a turn for the worse yesterday, when Paris Match magazine published an interview with Mr. Gaymard.

“Obviously, if I wasn’t the son of a cobbler and shoe salesman, if I was a big bourgeois, I wouldn’t have a housing problem,” he is quoted as telling Paris Match. “I would be the owner of my own apartment, and there wouldn’t have been this whole affair.”

Mr. Gaymard’s statements contradict a report published the day before by the French investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine. Le Canard said Mr. Gaymard owned a large and luxurious apartment in Paris, which he was renting out for more than $3,000 a month.

“Either he explains this affair, or he leaves,” Socialist Party Deputy Arnaud Montebourg told France Info radio yesterday, in one of many calls for Mr. Gaymard’s carefully coiffed head. “And the better option is that he goes.”

Mr. Gaymard’s housing perks were hardly the subject of French dinnertime debate until last week, when Le Canard first reported on them.

But they since have become front-page news and a major headache for the unpopular Mr. Raffarin, who is fighting to keep his job.

Mr. Raffarin has refused to fire his finance minister, apparently in the hopes that the controversy will die down. But he also has limited the size of apartments that ministers can use at the state’s expense.

And in an interview in France’s conservative Le Figaro newspaper yesterday, Mr. Gaymard defended his actions and described himself as “clean as a new penny.”

“They can’t pin me like a butterfly,” he said.

Indeed, his supporters say, Mr. Gaymard has done nothing illegal by accepting a perk offered by the French government. He also has vowed to pay back about $42,000 in repairs made to his government apartment.

Nonetheless, there are signs that the conservatives’ ranks are crumbling.

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