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Haircuts for a president, and maybe the taxpayers

By Aurelien Breeden

New York Times

PARIS >> As heads of state go, this one appears to be quite expensive.

The investigative and satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné reported Wednesday that President François Hollande’s personal hairdresser has been paid 9,895 euros (about $11,000) per month since Hollande was elected in 2012 — about the same amount as a government minister’s salary.

The report is especially jarring for Hollande, 61, a Socialist who campaigned on the promise that he would be a “normal” and exemplary president but who has seen his private life spill into the open on several occasions.

It would be hard for Hollande to be less popular. His approval ratings, while receiving a bump from the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, have been persistently low. He has been forced to agree to a primary among left-leaning parties, including his own Socialists, to settle on a candidate for president next year — a first for a sitting president.

Hollande has not managed to deliver on his promise to significantly lower unemployment, especially among young people. His government has faced months of street protests over an unpopular bill to loosen France’s rigid labor laws. And he faces a potential challenge from his economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, who has hinted that he may run for president next year.

The new controversy — the hashtag #CoiffeurGate, “coiffeur” being French for hairdresser, was a trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday — could contribute to the image as a president who is out of touch.

In France, opposition center-right and far-right parties were, unsurprisingly, critical of Hollande, and while reactions in his own party were more muted, some struck a harsher tone.

“That’s a lot of money for a hairdresser, and for the French in general,” Thierry Mandon, the junior minister for higher education and research, told the LCP news channel. “For many people in France that really, really, really is a lot of money.”

Still, the revelations have yet to morph into a full-blown political scandal in France, where the financial excesses or abuses of politicians are sometimes met with a shrug.

On Twitter, French observers expressed a mixture of amusement and outrage.

“When my 2,600 euros of income tax represent one week of the hairdresser’s salary #CoiffeurGate #shameful,” one user wrote. “#CoiffeurGate — ah, now I finally understand the expression ‘budgetary cuts,’” mused another. Some photoshopped royal wigs, mullets or toupées onto the French president’s sparsely adorned head.

The hairdresser, identified by Le Canard Enchaîné only as Olivier B., was first mentioned in a book by two French journalists published in April that aimed to give a behind-the-scenes look at the Élysée Palace, the presidential residence.

The book identified the hairdresser as Olivier Benhamou, and said that his monthly salary was 8,000 euros. When the tabloid magazine Closer wrote an article using that information, Benhamou sued them; that case is pending.

The work contract Benhamou signed with the Élysée Palace was recently introduced as evidence in a French court as part of that case, and was obtained by Le Canard Enchaîné, which used it as the basis of its report.

The contract was signed by Hollande’s former chief of staff. It is unclear whether Hollande knew how much the hairdresser is paid. On Wednesday evening, Valérie Trierweiler, Hollande’s former companion, wrote on Twitter: “Let’s be fair: F. Hollande was not aware of the hairdresser’s salary. I can attest to his anger when he learned about it later.”

Le Canard Enchaîné was less convinced.

“Cutting and combing the president’s three strands of hair, that’s a real job,” the newspaper wrote sarcastically, noting that the hairdresser will have earned 593,700 euros (about $660,000) when his five-year contract ends.

Sarah Levy, Benhamou’s lawyer, told Le Canard Enchaîné that the salary was justified because her client had to sell his salon in the 17th Arrondissement of Paris and because he was constantly on call.

“He is at the disposal of the president 24 hours a day, he is never replaced by extras,” Levy said. “He missed the birth of his children, their broken arms, their operations.”

The Élysée Palace also confirmed the report, telling Le Canard Enchaîné that Benhamou started his days very early and that “he redoes the president’s hair every morning and as much as needed, for each public statement.”

René Dosière, a Socialist lawmaker in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, who closely tracks government expenses and has published several reports on the issue, said it made sense for the president to have people on staff to take care of his clothing, makeup or health.

“But recruiting someone full-time for his haircut, that’s excessive, it is a mistake he made in 2012,” he said in a telephone interview. Dosière added, however, that the revelations about the hairdresser might eclipse the fact that Hollande had actually decreased expenses at the Élysée Palace in the past few years.

A 2015 report by the Cour des Comptes, the French organization that conducts financial audits of the state and other public institutions, found that personnel spending at the Élysée Palace in 2014 — 68.2 million euros, out of the palace’s overall budget of 100 million euros — had fallen by 1.6 percent from the previous year and that staff numbers had been cut.

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