World

France's Macron under growing pressure to fire tainted ally

A French prosecutor opened an investigation Thursday into a close ally of President Emmanuel Macron, putting the new leader under growing pressure to clean up his own government after he campaigned to improve ethical standards in politics.

Macron stayed awkwardly silent after the announcement of the investigation into Territorial Cohesion Minister Richard Ferrand, an early ally who played a pivotal role in the presidential campaign.

The investigation comes at a bad time for Macron and his government, as they are striving to get a majority in parliament in two-round legislative elections this month to push through his pro-business, pro-EU agenda — and just as Justice Minister Francois Bayrou detailed the first major bill of Macron's presidency Thursday, a law intended to clean up corruption in politics.

Ferrand is notably suspected of past business practices that benefited his romantic partner during the time when he led an insurance company. After saying there were no grounds for an investigation, the prosecutor in Brest in western France reversed course and said it is opening a probe.

The U-turn follows a drumbeat of media reports and questions about a possible conflict of interest before and after he became a lawmaker in 2012. Ferrand has also acknowledged hiring his son as his parliamentary aide for a few months.

The prosecutor's statement said police will investigate whether there are grounds to potentially charge Ferrand for property crimes, lack of probity and violating insurance codes.

Ferrand acknowledged the facts in a statement this week, but denies any wrongdoing. Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe have stood behind him so far.

While visiting the western region of Brittany, a stronghold of his disputed minister, Macron refused to answer questions from journalists on the case Thursday. The prime minister stood by his line that Ferrand can retain his position as minister as long as he isn't given preliminary charges.

At this early stage of the judicial proceedings, Ferrand can't be charged. Only an investigating judge could hand Ferrand preliminary charges, but the prosecutor hasn't yet decided to appoint one.

Even if Ferrand is found to have done nothing wrong legally, his image is tainted and threatens to taint that of the new president. Macron won the election in part on promises to renew French political practices and figures from top to bottom.

Calls for Ferrand's resignation or dismissal have come from all political sides and also from civil society.

France's leading anti-corruption association, Anticor, urged the minister to resign in order to "not interfere" with Macron's efforts to "moralize" political life.

"Whatever the outcome of the judicial inquiry," Anticor's president, Jean-Christophe Picard, told BFM television, "His political accountability is already at stake."

From the far-right to far-left of the political spectrum, several politicians stressed that the minister now has no other choice than to resign, saying the credibility of the government in its fight for higher standards of transparency and ethics is at stake.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said that "there has been at least a moral breach" in Ferrand's case. Conservative lawmaker and former magistrate Georges Fenech said that "if Macron doesn't get Ferrand's resignation within the hour, he will no longer be credible."

The leader of the Socialist lawmakers in the outgoing parliament, Olivier Faure, said it would be "preferable" for Ferrand to resign because he doesn't want the political climate be "polluted" by the case. Raquel Garrido, a spokeswoman for former far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, denounced a "culture of impunity."

Even in Macron's political movement Republic On The Move, some voices are starting to rise to raise doubts about maintaining Ferrand in the government.

Government spokesman Christophe Castaner acknowledged Wednesday that some experienced government members used to have practices from the "former world" that are legal, but not tolerated anymore by French public opinion.

Ferrand's situation is not the only embarrassing case for Macron less than a month after he won the presidential election. European Affairs Minister Marielle de Sarnez, a former European Parliament member, also is under investigation after a far-right lawmaker claimed that a batch of fellow French members of the European body, including de Sarnez, used their EU aides for political activities in France —instead of making them work at parliament.

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Sylvie Corbet contributed to the report.