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Lysiane Gagnon
Lysiane Gagnon

Lysiane Gagnon

Public office is no holiday Add to ...

In the early 1990s, a violent summer storm struck Montreal. Trees were uprooted, roofs were destroyed and Montrealers were quite upset - especially when they found out that mayor Jean Doré, far from rushing back to Montreal, was still quietly enjoying the pleasures of his lakeside cottage in the Laurentians.

He later told reporters: "Even if I had been there, I couldn't have done anything about it." His explanation was rational. The situation didn't call for the presence of politicians but for engineers and city workers. But this was a bureaucratic view. When disaster strikes, the place of an elected official is with his people. Mr. Doré learned the hard way: He was trounced in the next election, an outcome that was precipitated at least in part by his aloofness during the storm.

In contrast, former premier Lucien Bouchard was never as popular as when he firmly took charge during the terrible ice storm of January, 1998, which left half the province without electricity for days. Every day, he was on television with Hydro-Québec's CEO, informing the population about developments.

This summer, we saw elected officials in various parts of the world react very differently to the plight of their voters. As Moscow and its surroundings suffered from intense heat and massive forest fires, with countless human casualties, the city's mayor was holidaying in an undisclosed location - presumably a fancy dacha on the Black Sea. A reporter was bold enough to ask for an explanation from the mayor's office. The answer: This is a problem that concerns not just the city of Moscow but the whole region.

There's worse. Amid the floods that have devastated millions of Pakistanis, President Asif Ali Zardari left for an official visit to Paris and London. Instead of shortening his stay, he spent time at the five-star Hôtel de Crillon in Paris and his manor in Normandy before leaving for London with his 100-strong entourage, where he savoured the joys of the British capital for five days.

The picture was totally different in the United States, Spain and France.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who normally would have preferred Martha's Vineyard, took his family to Florida's Gulf Coast to encourage the return of tourism in the area devastated by the oil spill.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose country is suffering from a 20-per-cent unemployment rate, decided to skip his vacation. Last year, as the economic crisis was gathering steam, he took heat for having spent part of the summer at the palace hotel of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands.

France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who's been severely criticized for his association with the nouveaux riches - his first holiday after his 2007 victory was a Mediterranean cruise on the glitzy yacht of billionaire Vincent Bolloré - opted for a low-profile vacation this year in the family house of his wife, Carla Bruni. Mind you, his wife comes from a rich background - the Bruni Tedeschis are a successful industrialist family from northern Italy who moved to France in the 1970s because they feared Red Brigades kidnappings. Far from being a quaint stone house in a no-name village, the family's summer home is a vast, luxurious manor perched on Cap Nègre, a fashionable spot on the Côte d'Azur.

Perhaps Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff would have rather spent his holidays in Provence. But, in a desperate bid to shore up his party and change his image into an easy-going average Joe, he has been spending six weeks touring small-town Canada - in a bus to boot! - stopping to flip burgers, guzzle root beer and participate in demolition derbies. Mr. Ignatieff says he's had "an enormous amount of fun" - and this may very well be true, since the trip has contributed to the Liberals' recent small rise in the polls.

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