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Chastised French minister: I hate caviar and suffer a lobster...

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s widely lampooned environment minister denied having a taste for the high life and said on Friday he would not resign over accusations he squandered taxpayer money, in a scandal that risks upsetting the government’s reform drive.

FILE PHOTO: French Ecology Minister Francois de Rugy and his wife, Severine Servat arrive for the 34th annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF - Conseil Representatif des Institutions juives de France) on February 20, 2019, at the Louvre Carrousel in Paris. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

Investigative website Mediapart reported Francois De Rugy and his wife, a gossip magazine journalist, hosted lavish dinners, mostly for friends, at his official residence in Paris while he was speaker of parliament from June 2017-October 2018.

The episode has reinforced perceptions of an out-of-touch government at a time President Emmanuel Macron, shaken by the “yellow vest” revolt over inequality, is already fighting a “president of the rich” tag for his pro-business policies.

Mediapart published images of plump lobsters and 500 euro ($562) grand cru wines at one dinner hosted by De Rugy, sparking indignation and calls for him to quit.

De Rugy, visibly angry and choking with emotion, told BFM TV he still had Macron’s support. He acknowledged hosting the luxury meals but said that was normal for the National Assembly’s speaker. He denied any wrongdoing, describing himself as a frugal man who would make sure the lights were turned off after late-night parliament sessions.

He said he never asked the parliament’s chefs to serve lobster. “I don’t like it, I don’t eat it, I have an intolerance for shellfish,” said De Rugy. “I don’t like oysters ... I hate caviar and champagne gives me a headache.”

The number two in France’s government said he was no connoisseur of fine wines and had never paid more than 30 euros for a bottle of wine in his life.

“I cannot tell you which wines were served,” he said.

SOCIAL HOUSING

In an article headlined “De Rugy’s life at the chateau”, Mediapart ran a picture of his wife Severine with a 500 euro 2004 Mouton-Rothschild.

Asked repeatedly whether friends or family attended the dinners, De Rugy declined to give details. He said the events had been “working dinners around a theme” and that he had lowered reception costs at parliament by 13%.

A drawn-out media scandal over De Rugy’s lifestyle would limit his ability to push through reforms such as the restructuring of state-owned utility EDF and new taxes on carbon emissions from cars, trucks and airplanes.

On Thursday, Mediapart also said taxpayers paid 63,000 euros ($71,000) for the renovation of De Rugy’s government-provided apartment and that he rented rent-capped housing in his home town Nantes under a scheme aimed at making housing affordable.

De Rugy published the rental contract for the 48 m2 flat on his Facebook page and said the 596 euro per month rent was the market rate. He said he was not aware the flat was being rented under the “Loi Scellier” which gives landlords tax breaks in exchange for capped rent levels.

“I have absolutely no reason to resign,” De Rugy said.

“I’m furious with all these lies,” he continued, adding he was the victim of a campaign to denigrate his character.

On Thursday, De Rugy fired his chief of staff Nicole Klein after Mediapart revealed that she had kept a social housing flat in Paris for several years despite not living there.

Macron and his centrist government last month launched “Act II” of a reform drive that was derailed by months of sometimes-violent anti-government protests against his liberal economic policies and perceived arrogant manner.

The De Rugy saga risks bringing renewed distraction if it drags on for long.

Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Cawthorne

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