Sarkozy's wife returns credit card to office

FRANCE'S first lady Cecilia Sarkozy has given back a credit card provided by the president's office in an effort to defuse controversy over her spending, a government spokesman said yesterday.

The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine reported last week that president Nicolas Sarkozy's wife, a 49-year-old glamorous former model, had been given a credit card by the Elysee Palace to cover her personal expenses.

After an opposition Socialist MP asked prime minister Francois Fillon to respond to the newspaper allegations, the prime minister said that "no-one at the Elysee uses credit cards for personal expenses".

"This is all very petty and the Elysee will provide a detailed response to the deputy, Rene Dosiere," Mr Fillon told French media yesterday.

At the time he spoke, Mr Fillon was clearly unaware that Mrs Sarkozy had already returned the credit card.

The Canard Enchaine report quoted an unnamed Elysee official as saying that Mrs Sarkozy had used the credit card twice to pay for two working lunches, spending 129 (87) and 272 (183).

Yesterday Emmanuelle Mignon, the head of Mr Sarkozy's cabinet, said it had been her idea to provide Mrs Sarkozy with a credit card. "I thought it was a simpler, faster, more modern way of responding to her classic professional expenses, such as presents for wives of foreign heads of state required by protocol, wreaths of flowers, or entertaining expenses," she said.

Laurent Wauquiez, a government spokesman, said: "As with all previous wives of the president of the republic, Cecilia Sarkozy has an account to cover entertainment expenses," adding that to avoid controversy and pending "greater transparency" on her role at the Elysee, she has given back her card.

In his written question to the prime minister, Mr Dosiere asked: "In what capacity does the wife of the head of state have access to public funds, given that she does not hold a position and is not part of the presidential staff?"

Mr Dosiere, who has earned a reputation as a self-styled watchdog of public spending, asked about the credit card's spending limit and whether cash withdrawals were permitted - information which the Canard Enchaine said it had been unable to obtain from the Elysee.

The French first lady is no stranger to scandal after she split from her husband for several months in 2005 during a stormy period in their 11-year marriage. During their separation she was pictured in New York with boyfriend Richard Attias, an advertising executive.