France shells out €176m on new luxury jet 'Air Sarko One'
Europe's chiefs cut perks but French defend need for a presidential plane
Nicolas Sarkozy's dream of having his own presidential jet to rival America's iconic Air Force One is about to come true.
"Air Sarko One", a €176m Airbus A330-200, has made its first test flight in the picturesque setting of Bordeaux, in south-western France.
It is due for completion by October. When completely fitted out, it will have a 12-man meeting room, 60 business class seats, top-grade encrypted communications systems, a reinforced fuselage and even a missile decoy system.
It will also have a bedroom, an air filter system to cope with the president's cigar smoke, and a shower.
A fleet of smaller jets will replace the current Falcon 50 and 900 models at ministers' disposal.
They will include two Falcon 7Xs, models often favoured by the world's jet set. Presidential air force officials have nicknamed one jet "Air Carla One" after the French leader's wife, the singer and former model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
Mr Sarkozy is understood to have long envied the luxurious conditions on the Boeing 747-200B in which Barack Obama, the US president, flies across the world, and has complained that his two smaller Airbus A319s lacked the necessary presidential stature. "Air Sarko One" as the plane has been dubbed, will have a wingspan that is two feet longer than the US model.
It has been claimed that Mr Sarkozy had wanted a full-sized presidential bathtub on board but he was informed that under heavy turbulence the bath water could overflow and seep into the aircraft's electronics.
Mr Sarkozy's €176m purchase and refit of the jet from Air Caraibes, a tourist airline, has raised eyebrows as the winds of austerity blow through Europe and other leaders are reining in their perks.
British prime minister David Cameron has made great play of his decision to travel on commercial flights as part of the British Government's new austerity drive. Former prime minister Tony Blair's plans to purchase two private jets, immediately nicknamed "Blair Force One," at a cost to the British taxpayer of £100m (€120m), were scrapped by Gordon Brown soon after he came to power.
Mr Sarkozy has been criticised for preparing to take charge of a new presidential plane just weeks after ordering his ministers to cut public spending.
There has also been a string of embarrassing expenses scandals.
Earlier this month, Alain Joyandet, the secretary of state for overseas development, stood down amid reports that he had hired a private jet at a cost of €116,500 to fly to the Caribbean.
Christian Blanc, the state secretary for the Greater Paris region, was forced to resign after it emerged that he had spent €12,000 on Cuban cigars at the taxpayer's expense.
Mr Sarkozy's government yesterday rebutted claims the new plane was an extravagance.
Luc Chatel, the government spokesman, said: "There is nothing ostentatious, simply a desire to have equipment fitting for the world's fifth power."
He has argued that the cost of the new presidential jet will be offset by the sale of the two smaller A319s currently used.
However, the two medium-range jets are expected to fetch around only €20m. (© Daily Telegraph, London)