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Rare audit questions French presidential spending

16/07/2009 - 19:58

* First presidential audit for more than 200 years

* Sarkozy has to pay back 14,000 euros

* Auditors say travel, maintenance costs could be cut

By Thierry Leveque

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy could cut back on travel and food expenses, auditors said on Thursday, following a review of accounts that also revealed the state had erroneously paid for some of his personal costs.

It was the first such audit of a French leader's books since the reign of Louis XVI in the 18th century and came after Sarkozy pledged to bring more transparency to the presidency.

Shortly before the report was released, Sarkozy reimbursed 14,000 euros (12,040 pounds) in personal expenses that accountants found had been mistakenly paid for by the state. No details were given and there was no suggestion of wrongdoing.

"One has to recognise the effort that has been made to bring the Elysee into the legal fold, which hasn't been the case for decades and decades," said Philippe Seguin, head of the official audit body that conducted the study.

The auditors said the Elysee's 2008 budget was 112 million euros, less than 0.05 percent of the state's total budget.

However, they said the president could cut spending on items ranging from foreign trips to food purchases and gardening bills for little-used country estates.

"Significant progress has been accomplished, but the road ahead is still long," said Seguin.

The most serious issue raised by the report concerned a contract worth 1.5 million euros awarded by the Elysee to a polling firm without the compulsory bidding process.

The presidency spent 392,288 euros on a "political barometer" opinion poll which was available for free in the media. The version received by the Elysee had no extra information.

There was no immediate comment on this from the Elysee.

FLIGHTS AND FOOD

Auditors said more attention had to be given to food supplies, with the Elysee palace using the same butchers since 1969 and not seeking out better deals.

The audit also questioned travel costs, noting that when Sarkozy made personal trips he caught commercial flights.

However, officials who have to travel with him at all time, claimed their tickets back on expenses and in the meantime an empty state plane always followed the president where ever he went in case he had to return to France in an emergency.

The auditors said Sarkozy should always travel by the official jet and reimburse the state for the cost of a commercial flight. This would enable his permanent staff of bodyguards, officials and doctors to travel for free.

The accountants also took issue with the maintenance and gardening bills for three official country residences which are hardly used. The bills amounted to 1.76 million euros in total.

One of the residences, Souzy-la-Briche, has not been used since Francois Mitterrand stepped down as president in 1995.

The audit breaks with a long tradition of opacity surrounding the head of state's expenditure in a country with a strong presidential system and a taste for pomp and ceremony.

It provided no comparison with 2007, when it did not collect equivalent data. According to an opposition legislator whose own survey into the matter caused a stir last month, Elysee expenditure rose by 22 percent year-on-year in 2008.

(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Crispian Balmer)

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