Eric Dupond-Moretti, a former star lawyer appointed by President Emmanuel Macron last year, has been accused of taking advantage of his position as minister to settle scores with opponents from his legal career.
He is France’s first sitting justice minister to be charged in a legal probe, which he has denounced as a vendetta by a judicial corps hoping to have him replaced.
“Unsurprisingly, he has been charged,” Dupond-Moretti’s lawyer Christophe Ingrain said after his client left the Law Court of the Republic in central Paris, which hears cases of alleged wrongdoing by serving ministers.
“His explanations were unfortunately not enough to overturn a decision that was made before his hearing,” he added, saying he would seek file have the decision annulled.
In a highly unusual move, investigators spent 15 hours searching Dupond-Moretti’s office at the justice ministry on July 1.
The accusations relate to administrative inquiries into three judges who ordered police in 2014 to pore through the phone records of dozens of lawyers and magistrates, including Dupond-Moretti, as part of an investigation into former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The judiciary accused Dupond-Moretti of a witch-hunt. He denied the allegations, saying he was merely acting on the recommendations of his staff to investigate possible failings on the part of the magistrates who oversaw the seizures of the phone records.
Now Dupond-Moretti has been charged with conflict of interest by a person in a position of public authority, Macron is likely to face calls from the opposition to sack him.
But his supporters say he is the target of a witch hunt by the three judges from the Financial Prosecutor’s Office.
Two of the lawmakers who sit on the Law Court, which also includes professional judges, resigned from their posts to protest Dupond-Moretti’s questioning.
One was from Macron’s centrist party and the other from the right-wing Republicans (LR).
Dupond-Moretti is not the first member of Macron’s top team to be charged with an offence.
Shortly after his election in 2017 Macron dismissed his close aide Richard Ferrand from his post as minister for territorial cohesion after he was placed under investigation over claims he favoured his wife in a lucrative property deal with a public health insurance fund.
Ferrand later made a comeback in a more senior role as parliament speaker — a job he kept after being charged with conflict of interest.
Ahead of Friday’s court appearance, one cabinet member told AFP she was not certain that the combative Dupond-Moretti, famous for his record of getting his clients acquitted, could survive the scandal if he was charged.
“It’s complicated, especially when you’re justice minister,” she said.
Dupond-Moretti went into Friday’s court hearing weakened by recent revelations that he failed to declare €300,000 in royalties he earned from a one-man show in which he starred while still a lawyer.
Last week he admitted to making a “mistake” on his tax form. His aides say he has since settled the bill arising from the royalties on his one-man theatre production entitled “Eric Dupond-Moretti to the Bar”.
On the electoral front, too, he suffered a major setback when he stood for office for the first time in last month’s regional and departmental elections, winning less than 10 percent of the vote.