December 21, 2017 / 1:15 PM / 3 months ago

Macron's presidential jet plan hits bad-publicity turbulence

* Price tag of new jet may top $100 million

* Timing awkward after 350,000 euros charter hire

* Macron’s office says reviewing options

By Marine Pennetier and Brian Love

PARIS, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Plans to buy a new presidential jet for France’s Emmanuel Macron could be held up because of a controversy sparked by his prime minister, who hired a private plane for 350,000 euros ($416,000) to fly home from Japan.

Business paper La Tribune said news of Edouard Philippe’s costly Japan-to-Paris charter had come at a bad time, with Macron — who has campaigned against wasteful spending — about to decide on a new presidential plane.

France’s equivalent of Air Force One is an old Airbus A330 that was bought second-hand 10 years ago and given a luxury refit for use by Nicolas Sarkozy, whose penchant for high-living earned him the nickname “President Bling Bling”.

At Macron’s office, an official played down the jet issue, saying a new purchase was being considered before he took office in May and that the government was waiting for a report on the matter before making a decision.

“That will take a few weeks and when it’s done we will assess all options for improving travel arrangements for the president and government,” an Elysee official told Reuters.

Macron has a similar PR problem to Sarkozy in a country where ostentatious displays of wealth are frowned upon: opinion polls show many voters feel the former investment banker is overly pandering to the rich, pointing to his scrapping of a wealth tax and lowering of subsidies for public housing.

Macron, who turned 40 on Thursday, drew criticism early in his presidency after it emerged he had spent 26,000 euros on makeup in his first 100 days in office. There were further brickbats this week after he celebrated his birthday in the grounds of a famed Loire chateau.

Aside from the bad timing, the acquisition of a new presidential jet raises another delicate issue.

The bill — at least $100 million but possibly double that — is likely to be paid from the defence budget.

France’s army chief abruptly quit in July following a row over budget cuts, forcing Macron to say the cuts were a one-off and that increases were planned in the years ahead.

The plane bought for Sarkozy cost 176 million euros once it was fitted with a presidential bedroom, a soundproofed meeting room, kitchen, scrambled communications technology and various other medical and emergency capabilities.

While Airbus declined to comment on any new order, a plane of the kind mooted for Macron, an Airbus A319neo, has a list price of $99.5 million. It could cost more than double that if the refit ordered for Sarkozy is anything to go by.

But it would at least provide the president and seven staff with the ability to fly 12,500 km, or up to 15 hours, non-stop, reaching most of the world’s capitals in a single journey. (Additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Luke Baker and Catherine Evans)

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