French prosecutors heap pressure on Macron after opening probe into minister

French prosecutors have opened a probe into a government minister over a controversial property deal involving his wife, piling pressure on new President Emmanuel Macron who has been urged to sack him.

French prosecutors heap pressure on Macron after opening probe into minister
Photo: AFP

Prosecutors in the Brittany town of Brest announced on Thursday morning they had opened a preliminary probe into Richard Ferrand, the minister accused of conflict of interest in a property deal.

Ferrand is the minister for territorial cohesion, but he is also seen as Macron's right hand man and has been leading the parliamentary elections campaign for the president's Republique en Marche party.

After initially suggesting they would not be investigating Ferrand French prosecutors in Brest say they will open a probe to gather together further elements to determine whether Ferrand has broken any laws.

On Wednesday French President Emmanuel Macron had backed Ferrand, urging the media “not to act as judge” in an embarrassing affair that has embroiled the new government, not least because the new president had vowed to clean up politics.

For days, France's new government has been swatting away allegations that Ferrand favoured his wife in a lucrative deal with a public health insurance fund when he headed the company.

The affair is the lone snag in an otherwise trouble-free start to Macron's tenure, during which he has been praised for standing up to US President Donald Trump and taking a firm line with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Ferrand, a former Socialist lawmaker who joined Macron's camp last year and helped run his campaign, has denied any wrongdoing and rebuffed calls by rivals for his resignation.

“I am an honest man,” the 54-year-old minister told France Inter radio on Wednesday.

The investigative Canard Enchaine newspaper reported last week that an insurance fund that Ferrand headed in his native Brittany — where he is an MP — agreed in 2011 to rent a building from his wife and carry out renovations that boosted its value.

Ferrand has dismissed the report as a “welcome present” from the media for the new government, saying that his wife made the fund the best offer and that he had no say in the matter.

The revelations are nonetheless an embarrassment for 39-year-old Macron, who campaigned on a promise to clean up and rejuvenate France's corruption-plagued political class.

His first piece of legislation — to be unveiled next month — will set new standards for ethics in public office.

Francois Baroin, who is leading the legislative campaign for the conservative Republicains party, criticised Macron for not taking “the necessary decisions” regarding Ferrand.

“I can believe the president's sincerity,” Baroin said at a rally in the port city of Caen, but “I don't understand why he is not taking the necessary decisions, which are in his minister's interests.”

Government spokesman Christophe Castaner acknowledged the “unease” generated by the revelations and said he was “favourable” to an inquiry, “if there are elements that lead the courts, or the police or the gendarmes to believe an inquiry is needed.”

He insisted, however, that “from a legal point of view, nothing Richard Ferrand has done is objectionable.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has also backed Ferrand although he said he would be forced to resign if he was charged.


Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”