France ex-presidential hopeful Royal probed over expenses

3 min

Paris (AFP)

French prosecutors said Wednesday they have opened an investigation into allegations that former French presidential candidate Segolene Royal used expenses meant for her ambassadorial job on external interests including promoting her book.

Royal, who unsuccessfully stood as the Socialist candidate against Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency in 2007, has since 2017 worked as an ambassador for the polar regions with responsibility for negotiating international agreements.

She has an annual expenses budget of 100,000 euros ($112,000) for her mission, as well as three staff members who are paid by the foreign ministry.

The national prosecutors' office for financial crimes (PNF) confirmed to AFP that Royal was under investigation.

The 66-year-old former environment minister, a key figure in leftwing politics, has denied the allegations which she has slammed as "insinuations" and "defamatory".

In a statement on Facebook, Royal said the probe, while only made public now, had in fact been opened two months ago following claims made in the media. The PNF then confirmed the investigation had been opened on November 15.

France Info radio said Royal is accused of using her staff to accompany her on missions unrelated to her official role, such as promoting a book and working for her foundation.

But Royal denied the accusations point-by-point in her Facebook statement, concluding: "The rules were perfectly respected."

- 'Politics another matter' -

Even before the news of the investigation broke, Royal's future was in question after the government warned she faced dismissal for repeatedly criticising President Emmanuel Macron's policies, including his controversial pension reforms.

"Madam Ambassador, we are considering terminating your position in view of your recent public statements," read a letter jointly signed by the general secretaries of the foreign and environment ministries that Royal posted on her Facebook page.

Royal said that she considered herself to have been dismissed. A source close to the government told AFP that she would likely be fired after a cabinet meeting on January 24.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe indicated that he did not believe that Royal had behaved in a way appropriate for an official post.

He told reporters that in such a position Royal had an "obligation of reserve" in her comments.

"In this matter, I think that clarity will be helpful. Diplomacy is one mission, politics is another," he said.

Her appointment by Macron as ambassador to the Arctic and Antarctic in 2017 was seen as something of a consolation prize for Royal, who missed out on several more senior postings.

In recent weeks her position had appeared to be in jeopardy after a flurry of tweets and statements bashing the government and Macron.

Reacting to Macron's announcement in December amid crippling strikes that he would foreswear his own presidential pension, Royal tweeted acidly that "the real question" was whether the former investment banker would return to "the globalised business world with its huge golden handshakes" after he left office.

Last month, two MPs demanded she be summoned by parliament to give an account of her work on the polar regions.

A slew of prominent French politicians are currently facing legal probes.

Former prime minister Francois Fillon will go on trial on February 24 for accusations he created a fictitious job for his wife paid for by public funds.

Sarkozy will become France's first ex-president to stand trial on corruption charges on October 5 in a case in which he is accused of trying to obtain classified information from a judge.