Macron stands by cabinet ally Ferrand as ethics row rages on
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With critical legislative elections looming in June, French president Emmanuel Macron could have done without allegations of impropriety against a close associate – and cabinet minister – splashed across newspaper front pages.
The new French leader, after all, won power with his upstart political movement on pledges of probity and made pushing through a new law on ethics in politics a top priority of his fledgling term. That legislation is due to be presented to his cabinet on June 14.
But Richard Ferrand, 54, Macron’s newly named minister for territorial planning – an early Socialist supporter of the political neophyte’s presidential bid who became Macron’s right-hand man during the winning campaign – is now facing a raft of disparate allegations on his activities both in the private sector and as a member of parliament. After initially announcing he had not found legal grounds for an inquiry, a public prosecutor announced on Thursday morning that he would indeed open a preliminary inquiry.
Recall that Macron’s electoral success came at the expense of disgraced Les Républicains presidential candidate François Fillon, the conservative ex-prime minister once favoured to win the presidency but foiled by accusations – and later charges, including embezzlement of public funds and fraud – in a fake jobs scandal implicating his wife and children.
Macron’s new ethics law, indeed, seeks a total ban on elected officials hiring family members – even for real jobs.
Ferrand, for his part, has denied any wrongdoing and has refused to step down from the cabinet to which he was named only two weeks ago. But in a poll, French people surveyed seem in a merciless mood on the matter. The Harris survey, released Wednesday, shows 70 percent want Ferrand to resign his cabinet post.
The French press hasn’t been more tender than the public. The daily Le Parisien on Wednesday ran “The Cumbersome Mr. Ferrand” as its cover story. The leftist daily Libération also featured the longtime Socialist on Wednesday's front page with the headline, “Richard Ferrand: Do as I say not as I do.”
Macron, after days of silence on the matter and with pundits piling on, expressed support for his minister through a spokesperson on Wednesday. “Only the courts are equipped to pass judgment,” the president said, according to government spokesman Christophe Castaner. “Things are not always good when the press becomes the judge.” Macron said he would make no comment after Thursday's development, the preliminary inquiry.
Prime Minister Édouard Philippe told French television on Tuesday night that Ferrand would keep his cabinet post. “I am saying yes, after having perfectly understood, being perfectly conscious of the exasperation of the French, of their emotion, of their annoyance,” Philippe said. The prime minister also noted that any minister who faced criminal charges (which is not the case currently for Ferrand) would have to resign immediately. Philippe’s entourage told Reuters on Thursday that the preliminary inquiry does not change that rule.
The PM had said last Friday that there was no legal affair, but a debate. “That debate is political and it will be decided by those most qualified and best qualified to judge such political debates, voters and French citizens,” Philippe said. Ferrand is one of several government ministers running for a seat in the legislative elections on June 11 and 18. The Élysée Palace has said from the start that any cabinet member running in that race who loses at the ballot box will have to step down.
Ferrand’s troubles began last week, when the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné shone a light on aspects of his tenure at the head of the Mutuelles de Bretagne, a non-profit health insurance fund in the Brittany region, from 1998 to 2012. The newspaper reported that Ferrand’s partner, Sandrine Doucen, had won contracts from the Mutuelles de Bretagne and benefitted from a lucrative real estate deal that saw her renting commercial space to the organisation while Ferrand was still heading it.
Le Canard and the daily Le Monde also reported that Ferrand’s ex-wife, Françoise Coustal, won contracts from the Mutuelles de Bretagne with Ferrand at its head, although after the couple’s 1994 divorce.
Le Monde further reported that Ferrand had hung onto a paid role at the Mutuelles de Bretagne after his election to the National Assembly in 2012 -- when his former deputy Joëlle Salaün took over as chief on his recommendation -- taking home 1,250 euros per month throughout his five-year parliamentary term. The paper has insinuated that Ferrand’s continued role working for a health insurance fund may represent a conflict of interest with the parliamentary work he was doing on legislation concerning that very type of organisation. It also noted that Ferrand hired Salaün’s partner, a Socialist activist and former taxi driver, as a parliamentary assistant.
Le Canard Enchaîné further reported that Ferrand had also hired his son as a parliamentary assistant, a fact that likely raised red flags for a public still reeling from the Fillon fracas.
Ferrand rejects the allegations of impropriety. He has explained that his son was recruited briefly -- for four months, at 1,266.16 euros per month – at a time when another parliamentary assistant, Ms. Salaün’s partner, had to step down for serious health reasons on short notice.
“I obviously see that today…there is a total rejection of the idea that a parliamentarian hire someone close to him. I wouldn’t do it again,” Ferrand told Franceinfo after his son’s hiring was revealed.
With regard to his ex-wife, Ferrand contended in a statement that the pair had divorced eight years before she obtained work from the Mutuelles de Bretagne on her own merits and that he never intervened to obtain a contract for her.
Ferrand has further denied any conflict of interest between his professional and parliamentary work, saying the ethics authority was aware of the sideline, arguing that members of parliament shouldn’t be excluded from parliamentary work on a subject by mere dint of their expertise in the same field, and vaunting the notion of politicians keeping one foot in the professional world outside politics.
The minister has also denied any role in choosing his partner’s commercial rental space for the Mutuelles, telling Brittany regional newspaper Le Télégramme that it was up to a board of directors he didn’t belong to; he has also noted that the rental fee was below the market rate, making the deal beneficial to the organisation.
The public prosecutor in Brest, Brittany, had released a statement last Friday saying he found no legal grounds for opening an inquiry after Le Canard Enchaîné’s real estate revelations. Public prosecutor Eric Mathais’s initial statement also mentioned that he had received a “report from the lawyer representing the political movement Les Républicains delivering, on behalf of its client, his own analysis of the facts reported in this article,” but Mathais said he had not come to the same conclusions as the conservative party’s lawyer.
On Thursday morning, Mathais said that, after reviewing “complementary elements” revealed in the press since his initial statement, the public prosecutor would indeed open a preliminary inquiry in order to “gather any element permitting a complete analysis of the facts and to find whether they are susceptible or not to constitute a penal infraction” notably with regard to “property damage” and “a breach in the duty of probity”.
Recent polls show Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) well ahead of Les Républicains in the upcoming legislative elections. Pollsters have said LREM could win an outright majority in the lower-house National Assembly and flummox its conservative opponents’ designs on governing in so-called co-habitation alongside an executive branch headed by the centrist Macron.
But the notion over the past week that Ferrand had not broken the law did not appear in any case to satisfy critics. In its Wednesday afternoon editorial, Le Monde quoted former prime minister Raymond Barre saying: “In politics, one cannot use the presumption of innocence as a shield… When one occupies an important position, as soon as there is suspicion, it is best to go.”
To which the newspaper adds pointedly, “The question has been posed.”
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