French presidential wine auction a gesture of austerity in country's troubled times

(CBS News) France has some of the world's best wine, and with its government facing severe financial problems, the French president is using some of that wine to help balance the budget.

An auction, which started Thursday night and continues Friday at Drouot auction house in Paris, is raising money -- and some eyebrows. It has been described as the French equivalent of selling off the family silver, but French President Francois Hollande decided with his country's economy in the basement, it was time to raid the cellar.

Victoria Mather, a social commentator - and a wine lover herself -- is not buying it. Mather, a travel editor for Vanity Fair, said, "Bloody French! It's so typical. ... It's just a typical bit of French couture window dressing, isn't it? Because they are only selling 10 percent of the cellar, it's probably the bits about to go off, to go over the top, because wine doesn't last forever, and it's only going to raise 250,000 Euros."

CBS News' D'Agata remarked to Mather it's a drop in the ocean. "Yes," Mather said, "considering they have a deficit of 10 billion (Euros)."

That quarter of a million Euros -- around $325,000 -- will come from selling off wine ranging in price from $20 to several thousand per bottle. They all carry the presidential seal, which naturally bumps up the price.

The presidential wine cellar is usually the reserve of kings and queens and American presidents who wined and dined at the palace. The previous French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, never touched a drop, saying he didn't like the taste. But that puts him in a minority in France -- where they drink wine like water and consider it a national treasure. Mather said, "Wine is part of the French cultural identity and it is part of the way in which we perceive the French and it is absolutely the way in which the French perceive themselves. They go from milk to wine, that's the transition from childhood to adulthood."

But times are tough. France slid back into a recession this year, and unemployment is at a record high. Everybody's tightening their belt, the thinking goes. With the country in the red, why not sell some red -- and white and cognac and Champagne -- if even just a gesture.

In defense of the French, some cash will replace the expensive stuff, with wines of a more palatable price tag and modest vintage.

Watch Charlie D'Agata's report above.

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