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French Politicians' Vacations Raise Questions

French PM Francois Fillon, left, with Parliamentary Relations Minister Patrick Ollier, centre, his partner Foreign Affairs Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie during the government questions at the French Parliament in Paris, February 9, 2011.

The vacations of top French politicians to Tunisia and Egypt and their personal ties to ruling families have become political fodder in France, a year ahead of presidential elections.

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy appears on television Thursday night for a citizens forum, he will likely be questioned on the latest embarrassment hitting his center-right government: vacations overseas.

Opposition politicians have demanded that Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie resign after reports she accepted plane rides from a businessman with close ties to the family of former Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Alliot-Marie says she did nothing wrong during her vacation in Tunisia, which took place amid anti-government protests that ultimately toppled Ben Ali.

Now, Prime Minister Francois Fillon appears to have preempt a new scandal by issuing a statement acknowledging he had accepted free travel and lodging from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, while on Christmas vacation in Egypt.

President Sarkozy has now called on his ministers to spend their vacations in France. But that has not silenced critics, like Greens party deputy Noel Mamere.

Mamere said on French radio that both Alliot-Marie and Fillon should leave office.

Former presidential candidate Francois Bayrou, of the center-right UDF party, says politicians who accepted freebies from foreign governments became indebted to them.

Bayrou says, in both cases, French politicians accepted gifts from very poor countries, which was a source of concern in itself.

Mr. Sarkozy's latest popularity polling is an unimpressive 38 percent. The latest scandals may well lower them, just a year before presidential elections. In another sign of discontent, judges, lawyers and police staged nationwide demonstrations Thursday and teachers went on strike.

Meanwhile, the Paris city hall, headed by popular Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoe, has also earned media attention because of Tunisia: It plans to name a street after Mohammed Bouazizi, the young man whose self immolation sparked the country's revolt.