Francois Fillon, right, is under fire for accepting government hospitality while vacationing in Egypt  [EPA]

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has grounded his ministers amid revelations that senior cabinet members went on free holidays to crisis-hit north African countries.

He asked ministers on Wednesday to holiday in France more often - after it emerged Prime Minister Francois Fillon took his family on a new year holiday to the Nile resort of Aswan while the foreign minister was holidaying in Tunisia during last month's protests in the country.

"What was commonplace a few years back can prove shocking nowadays," he said over the holiday controversy.

Sarkozy has also instituted a new policy to prevent such controversies from recurring. 

"Ministers will from now on have to seek clearance from the prime minister's office before accepting invitations to visit other countries," said a statement issued by Sarkozy's Elysee Palace after a regular cabinet meeting.

Fillon, admitted on Tuesday that the Egyptian authorities provided him and his family with free accommodation and a government plane for sightseeing during a vacation there just before the pro-democracy protests broke out.

Michele Alliot-Marie, the foreign minister, is already facing calls to resign over her holiday. She has admitted twice flying on a private plane from France to Tunisia for holidays. That plane was owned by a businessman with alleged ties to ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Growing criticism

But Sarkozy's move did not seem to dampen the growing criticism by media and the opposition.

"He may as well ask them to use low-cost carriers or late-running train services. This is just a way to convey the public shock that they were taking private jets and having these very nice holidays in nice circumstances - at a time when it's very difficult for French people just to get through the month and have an ordinary life," Franck Guillory, a French journalist and commentator, told Al Jazeera.

Pierre Moscovici, a Socialist member of parliament, said: "What's not on by today's moral standards is the idea that you don't pay for your hotel as the guest of a foreign power."

Questions have also arisen about Sarkozy's own year-end holiday in Morocco and a recent weekend in New York. Asked who footed the bill for those trips, Francois Baroin, the government spokesman, refused to provide any details.

Source: Al Jazeera, agencies