French Prime Minister Francois Fillon admitted Tuesday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak paid for his and his family's New Year holiday on the Nile and lent them a plane to go sightseeing.
The shock revelation came as France's foreign minister battled calls for her resignation over a New Year holiday in Tunisia during which she used a private jet owned by a tycoon allegedly close to the country's ousted dictator.
Fillon's office rushed out a statement after the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine broke the story about his trip to Egypt, where 300 people have been killed in massive street protests seeking to oust Mubarak.
The Fillon family got a free holiday that lasted from December 26 to January 2 in the Nile resort of Aswan, and were treated to a Nile boat ride and a flight on an Egyptian government plane to go sight-seeing, it said.
"The prime minister was lodged during this visit by the Egyptian authorities," the statement said, noting that Fillon met Mubarak in Aswan on December 30, before anti-government protests kicked off in Egypt.
"The prime minister, again at the invitation of the authorities, used a plane from the Egyptian government fleet to travel from Aswan to Abu Simbel where he visited a temple," it said.
The prime minister was making this information public "in the interest of transparency," it added, and pointed out that Fillon personally paid for his family?s flight from France to Aswan on a French government plane.
The Egypt trip is the first major scandal to hit Fillon, who has been seen as a safe pair of hands and a low-key figure complementing the impetuous right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy, since he was appointed in 2007.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, who heads the opposition Socialists in France's parliament, said the revelation showed there was a "crisis" at the highest level of state, while Green deputy Noel Mamere called on Fillon to resign.
The Green party asked in a statment how many other French ministers had "used the services of the 'Air Dictator' for their holidays in the sun."
North Africa is a popular winter destination for France's political elite.
Fillon has repeatedly backed his Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie over her latest holiday in Tunisia, which sparked calls for her to step down over alleged links to the ousted Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In late December, she took two trips in a plane owned by a prominent businessman -- who critics said was close to the regime -- when the revolt that eventually deposed Ben Ali was already under way in the former French colony.
It was also Le Canard Enchaine that broke that story.
Alliot-Marie has said she now deeply regrets her actions but she refuses to step down despite repeated calls from the opposition Socialists.
The outcry over Alliot-Marie came at a delicate time, after France was accused of being slow to react to the Tunisian uprising and of indulging Ben Ali's authoritarian regime.
France had warm ties with Ben Ali during his 23 years in power but just after he was driven out, Sarkozy backed the protest movement and denied him refuge in France.
Last month, when rights groups were reporting that Tunisia's hated police had shot dead dozens of unarmed protesters, Alliot-Marie caused an outcry by suggesting France could help train the force.
Sarkozy last week added his voice to calls for immediate political transition in Egypt as pressure grew on Mubarak to step down amid mass protests.
Mubarak, 82, has said he will hang on until September but not run in that month's presidential election.
Source: AFP Global Edition