Accusations against Macron’s right-hand man threaten govt credibility
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France’s financial prosecutor opened an investigation on Monday into allegations against President Emmanuel Macron’s chief-of-staff, Alexis Kohler, for violations of conflict of interest laws.
The investigation stems from a lawsuit filed last week by AntiCor, a non-profit dedicated to fighting corruption in politics. Kohler is accused of “influence peddling” while representing the French state at board meetings of the agency Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique/STX France in 2010, even though he has family ties with the agency’s major client, the Swiss-Italian Mediterranean Shipping Company (MCS). The accusation also covers his participation, while he was working this time for MCS, in a meeting in March 2017 over the takeover of STX.
The Élysée presidential palace swiftly issued a statement denying any wrongdoing on Kohler’s behalf, and questioning the veracity of the information in the lawsuit. “From our point of view, this complaint is based on an article by [French investigative website] Mediapart, which contained a number of serious factual errors,” it said.
AntiCor filed the lawsuit following a report published by Mediapart in May, which alleged Kohler violated conflict of interest laws by using his position to benefit MCS. The second largest shipping company in the world, MCS is owned by Gianluigi Aponte, whose wife Rafaele Aponte is a cousin of Kohler’s mother.
“Concretely, what’s suspected is that [Kohler] was able to benefit from – that MCS benefitted from – his influence to either give it an edge when signing a contract or to obtain contracts it otherwise might not have had,” Jean-Baptiste Soufron, a lawyer for AntiCor, told France’s BFM TV.
The investigation comes as an embarrassment for Macron, who campaigned on the promise to run a squeaky clean government. Shortly after taking office, he passed legislation tightening ethics rules for officials in an effort to restore public trust, which had been eroded by a string of scandals in recent years.
Macron's main man
Kohler, 45, is widely seen as Macron’s right-hand man. Known for his hard work and brilliance, he is an alumnus of some of France’s most prestigious universities, and worked at the Treasury department and the International Monetary Fund before joining France’s state holdings agency. He was appointed former finance minister Pierre Moscovici’s no. 2 in 2012, a role he reprised two years later when Macron took over the ministry.
Since then, the two men have become almost inseparable. While Macron shone at the fore, Kohler worked quietly in the background. The pair briefly parted ways in 2016, when Macron resigned from the finance ministry to pursue his own political ambitions. Kohler went to work on MCS’s board as chief financial officer, but continued to work with Macron on his presidential campaign in his spare time – a move now under close scrutiny.
After Macron was elected president in May 2017, he appointed Kohler his chief-of-staff, the most powerful position in the cabinet.
The Élysée has stood steadfast by Kohler, whom it has repeatedly said never sought to hide his ties to MSC.
“Mr. Kohler would like to point out that he has always kept his superiors informed of the personal links he had with MSC,” the Élysée said in Monday’s statement. “As a result, he has systematically been removed from all deliberation and all decisions relating to this enterprise.”