PARIS — A photo of five giant lobster tails, neatly encased in their shells and arrayed on a table sparkling with crystal and fine white wine, has exploded across the internet and endangered the career of a stalwart in the cabinet of President Emmanuel Macron of France.
Until recently, François de Rugy, Mr. Macron’s ecology minister and the president of the National Assembly, seemed like a strait-laced politician.
But he found himself in the public and political cross hairs on Thursday for a particularly sensitive transgression in today’s socially restless France: hosting lavish dinners for friends and relatives in the most sumptuous of settings, the Hôtel de Lassay, his official residence as assembly president, at taxpayer expense.
The lobster picture, publicized as Mr. Macron tries to regain his standing after months of populist fury at his policies and persistent image as “president of the rich,” was the last thing the president needed. The Yellow Vests rose up in revolt precisely over outrage at the perceived overprivilege of the Paris political and economic elite.
But the career of his hitherto punctilious ecology minister, who is No. 4 in the government hierarchy, appeared to be more immediately in danger on Thursday. With anger in Parliament mounting and demonstrators brandishing a giant inflated lobster at him, Mr. de Rugy received an abrupt summons by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on Thursday afternoon.
Mr. de Rugy’s case has not been helped by the explanations of his celebrity-journalist wife, Séverine, who organized the dinners for her husband. She told the investigative journalism website Mediapart, which broke the story, “When you are in politics, you can’t cut yourself off from the society.”
There were many critics who pointed out that supping on lobster and fine wine did not necessarily bring a government minister closer to the grass roots.
And Ms. de Rugy’s defense was undercut by a photograph of her smiling in front of a bottle of Mouton-Rothschild 2004, worth about $560, and not exactly what most French people would call a gros rouge — an ordinary table wine.
“The National Assembly has a pretty substantial wine cellar,” Ms. de Rugy explained to Mediapart.
“It’s a marvel, really, really beautiful,” one of the guests, the feminist lawyer Yael Mellul, told the French channel BFM-TV.
Food is one of the ultimate symbols of class and privilege in France, a point that has not been lost on Mr. Macron’s political enemies. Mathilde Panot, a far-left member of Parliament in the France Unbowed party, tweeted a picture of her lunch at the National Assembly: quiche and mashed potatoes.
Her France Unbowed colleague, the firebrand Adrien Quatennens, tweeted a more direct gibe: “While he was enjoying his fat lobsters washed down with fine wine, I was busy scanning my receipts from the pizzeria across the street.”
Early on in his tenure, Mr. de Rugy made himself unpopular with a good number of National Assembly colleagues by taking a high-minded stand on lavish spending. “I want there to be an analytic, transparent accounting, and that people really know, at the National Assembly, what costs what,” he said in September 2017.
Those days are long over.
“This is embarrassing for him. He made himself the herald of transparency and the white knight of parliamentary behavior,” said Jean-Michel Clément, a member of Parliament who broke with Mr. Macron and his party last year.
“Even if he reimburses, it’s too late,” Mr. Clément said. “There’s work to be done, to rehabilitate politics, after something like this. The damage is done,” he said. “Certainly, on the roundabouts, there will be criticism,” he said, referring to the traffic circles where the Yellow Vests congregated for six months.
“What’s really scandalous is that, if these were private dinners, it’s a kind of privatization, a kind of appropriation, of the official places of the republic,” Bruno Retailleau, the leader of the center-right in the French Senate, told French television.
Other revelations in Mediapart have not helped Mr. de Rugy. He was forced to fire his chief of staff after it was revealed that she had kept a coveted subsidized apartment in Paris even though she no longer lived there. And the website detailed $70,000 in renovations to Mr. de Rugy’s official apartments.
“This doesn’t help all the work that’s needed to reconquer the public’s confidence,” said Mr. Clément.
By the time Mr. de Rugy left Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s office Thursday evening, his job appeared to be safe, for now. He pledged with Mr. Philippe to “answer all the questions the French are legitimately asking.”