Rarely has a French-built airliner generated such controversy in the land of Lafayette and Victor Hugo, but a new Airbus A330-200 to be operated by the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) is doing just that. Is this new aircraft to be used for refuelling, medical evacuation or troop transport? No, it is the new plane which will fly the Chef d’État around the world to meetings and official functions. Dubbed ‘Air Sarko One’, the plane was thrust into the headlines during President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent visit to South Korea to attend the G20 summit, when it conveyed him to Seoul for the meeting.
It seems that it is not so much the aircraft’s existence which is causing much more than a Gallic shrug on the eastern side of the Channel. After all, the US President travels in Air Force One, his Russian counterpart has an official aircraft, as does the Japanese Royal Household. The cause of the anger is instead directed at the aircraft’s cost. Press reports speak of €176 million being spent on the acquisition of the aircraft second-hand from Air Caraibes, plus the modification of the interior which has seen the addition of a meeting room, high-tech secure communications and seating for 62 passengers; among other features. It seems that some quarters of the French public are finding it slightly galling that the Exchequer can shell out the cash for the new plane while the government talks about belt-tightening and austerity.
The President previously had the use of two Airbus A319CJ aircraft, although these were said to have an inferior range of around 7,000 kilometres, compared to the 12,000 km of the new aircraft. One of the A319s has since been sold to Senegal for €32 million. While this offsets some of the cash spent on the new airliner, it still leaves a bill of around €144 million. The French head of state’s love of luxury gave him the nickname ‘President Bling Bling’ following his election in May 2007. Using government coffers to purchase a new airliner when many of his compatriots are facing redundancy, suffering wage freezes, and working hard to make ends meet, is unlikely to help him shake this image as he works hard to appear as a politician serious about keeping French public finances under control.
By Thomas Whithington