Chirac sets tone for a sleaze-free frugal regime

FROM MARY DEJEVSKY

in Paris

President Jacques Chirac, in a drive to set a new tone for his government and dispel the aura of sleaze that attended the last years of the Mitterrand regime, has given his ministers clear instructions about cutting costs and reducing the trappings of power. The watchwords, he told the 42 members of the new government at their inaugural meeting on Saturday, were ``rigour, coherence, simplicity, efficiency''.

Promising to start from the top, Mr Chirac abolished the fleet of six planes and two helicopters on permanent stand-by for the use of the President and ministers. In future, ministers must charter an aircraft commercially or take a regular flight.

They will keep their cars and drivers, but may not use sirens or flashing lights to carve through traffic and will have to obey the highway code, including stopping at red lights. Mr Chirac's observance of this new standard on his way to the airport for his Strasbourg trip last week was widely approved by the French media.

Ministers have also been told that as public figures they should set an example by eschewing high living at public expense. (When Mr Chirac and his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, lunched the menu was simple and there was a vase of flowers where the bottle of wine would have been.)

Mr Chirac is also to slash the number of public sector and university appointments in the gift of the President , and the personal staffs of ministers are to be restricted.

Existing curbs on ministers and public officials switching into lucrative directorships of public and private industry are to be tightened up and enforced. A requirement introduced by the former prime minister, Edouard Balladur, will remain: that any minister charged with a criminal offence must resign.

The measures announced by Mr Chirac, and endorsed by Mr Juppe, are an attempt to reduce the widespread contempt for the ``political classes'' - a phenomenon repeatedly observed by Mr Chirac during his election campaign - and to pave the way for probably painful cost-cutting measures to tackle the 300bn franc budget deficit.

The deficit, or rather the public spending causing it, is to be the subject of a comprehensive review. Tomorrow, Mr Juppe will outline his programme to combat unemployment, expected to include an increase in VAT, if not other tax increases.

However, Mr Chirac has failed to tackle the "accumulation of mandates" - a practice which seems to foster corruption, with individuals holding local, national and party posts concurrently. Mr Juppe is standing for election as mayor of Bordeaux and intends to stay as chairman of the RPR party.

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