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LaToya Cantrell’s stay in France: First-class travel, a tour of the Riviera and a side trip

Mayor LaToya Cantrell has said her $43,000 summer trip to France carried a legitimate public purpose: she formed a partnership with a city of 74,000 on the Mediterranean Sea, one she says will help boost New Orleans’ international profile and spur economic development.

What hasn’t been widely discussed is the one-day side trip that she and staffers took to Paris, which included airfare from the south of France and lodging at a hotel overlooking the Eiffel Tower that averaged $726 a room, according to records obtained by The Times-Picayune.

Paris is more than 569 miles from the city of Antibes Juan-les-Pins, where Cantrell signed a sister-city agreement during her trip. When submitting her travel expenses, Cantrell said that the trip’s purpose was to secure that partnership and attend two related events in the south of France.

She and her staff didn’t detail an explanation for their travel to Paris when submitting their expenses, including at least $1,660 in flights from Nice and the $2,906 bill from the Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel hotel. It’s unclear if Cantrell paid for her flight to Paris herself, as that amount doesn’t appear to be included in her reimbursement.

City Hall spokesperson Gregory Joseph, who joined Cantrell on the trip, said the mayor of Paris canceled a scheduled meeting with Cantrell at the last minute. Instead, Cantrell had a discussion with another Parisian official about “the priorities the two cities share,” Joseph said.

Asked about the costs of the Paris hotel, Joseph said: “I don’t make any of the travel arrangements. I just go where they tell me to go.”

Cantrell defended her trip to France at a news conference Wednesday and said a travel agent selected the hotel in Paris.

“I can’t tell you why,” she said. “I would say because that’s what was available. I think it’s common sense.”

She also said the business-class travel was related to her safety.

“I do travel business class. Absolutely. I need to be protected,” said Cantrell. “I need to be safe as I do business on behalf of the city of New Orleans.”

The mayor’s office has not provided any further explanation for why Cantrell traveled first class for domestic connecting flights and business class for her flights overseas, or if the city’s reimbursement of her travel costs violated city policy. Joseph said he didn’t know if the city had a travel policy.

Cantrell flew on United Airlines to Europe, and that company’s business-class seats often cost as much as four times as much as coach, according to the airline’s website.

She was joined on her trip by Joseph, Chief of Staff Clifton Davis, and Robert Monlyn, a New Orleans police officer there for security.

The mayor’s companions all flew coach, and their flights cost taxpayers a little more than $17,000 combined, records show. Cantrell’s flights cost around $17,850. Round-trip economy prices to Paris next month average around $1,240 per traveler, according to Google Flights.

The travel was booked through Going Places Travel, Inc, in Metairie. The company’s owner didn’t return a message.

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‘Magical city’

A trip itinerary shows that Cantrell’s deal with the mayor of Antibes Juan-les-Pins wrapped up the first evening of the three-day trip. Cantrell and staff that night also attended the Jazz-a-Juan international jazz festival, held at a waterfront venue surrounded by a grove of pines.

French officials hosted Cantrell the following day with a walking tour of the sun-dappled French Riviera, a visit to a Picasso museum and a beachfront dinner with panoramic views of the Bay of Angels.

Joseph said New Orleans is interested in bringing a traveling Picasso exhibit to the New Orleans Museum of Art. Cantrell and French officials from the coastal city discussed flooding issues and “the sameness of our cultures,” Joseph said.

“It was more about learning or understanding the city and learning how our relationship in the sister city will interact with theirs,” Joseph said.

Cantrell and staff took a 90-minute flight to Paris the next morning, where Joseph said Cantrell met with a mayoral official and the headmaster for a school for at-risk youth. The group visited a Paris museum, Joseph said, while he posted photos of his samplings of local fare, including onion tarts, beef tartare and a bottle of green Chartreuse.

“It’s a beautiful summer day in a magical city,” Joseph said in a video.

Travel has sparked criticism

For the three-day trip, Cantrell and staff were each reimbursed about $395 in per diems for meals, records show.

Cantrell — who also took a $16,600 taxpayer-funded trip to Switzerland in June — faced criticism this summer that she was out of the country while a crime wave swept across New Orleans and NOPD was hemorrhaging officers.

She eventually canceled an August trip to Singapore and vowed to “embed” with police to respond to what officials described as a staffing crisis.

Cantrell has also recently stressed that the city must budget conservatively, as revenues may not reach pre-pandemic levels for another three years.

She wants to pay for a $39 million plan to raise salaries for nearly 4,300 employees by eliminating a yet-to-be determined number of vacant positions – most likely in the hundreds – permanently reducing the size of city government.

Speaking at a community meeting in New Orleans East on Aug. 15, Cantrell said, “We want to keep this city making decisions that are fiscally responsible and fiscally sound, and prudent in our practices.”

Ben Myers contributed reporting.

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