New French government resists pressure for minister to step down

PARIS (Reuters) - The new French government resisted pressure on Friday for a minister to step down over a business deal, saying it would be up to voters to decide whether or not to punish him in an election next month.

FILE PHOTO Newly appointed French Territorial cohesion Minister, Richard Ferrand, arrives May 18, 2017 to attend the first cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. Picture taken May 18, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

President Emmanuel Macron’s government faces ethical questions just over a week after it was formed after media disclosed that Richard Ferrand, a close ally of Macron, had rented business offices from his female partner and had also employed his son as a parliamentary assistant.

The media spotlight on Ferrand, who is minister for urban planning and housing, is embarrassing for the new president, who has made it a priority to clean up a French political scene that is frequently beset by corruption scandals.

The government plans to present a draft law in the next few weeks setting out a new ethics code for politicians.

Ferrand was reported this week by the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine to have rented office space from his partner from 2011 for health insurance companies he headed.

Le Canard Enchaine also said Ferrand employed his son as his parliamentary assistant for several months in 2014.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Socialist leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis have called for Ferrand’s resignation while the conservative Republicans have urged prosecutors to investigate.

Ferrand has said he has done nothing wrong, either legally or morally, and will not resign.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe rallied to the support of his embattled minister on Friday, saying he retained confidence in Ferrand and that voters would give their judgement on him when he stands in parliamentary elections in mid-June.

“The voters in the constituency where Richard Ferrand stands will be able to say in two weeks whether they, like me, have confidence in Richard Ferrand, and they will act as justice of the peace,” Philippe told reporters.

Ferrand has defended the office lease, saying the rent paid was below the market rate and that he had been open about his personal links with the office’s owner.

The prosecutor in the western city of Brest, where the office is located, said on Friday there were no grounds for investigating Ferrand.

It is not illegal for French lawmakers to employ relatives, but Ferrand has said he now regrets giving a job to his son.

Ferrand, 54, was rewarded with a ministerial post after leading Macron’s successful presidential campaign.

The affair follows a bigger scandal that sunk the presidential bid of conservative former prime minister Francois Fillon.

Fillon went from front-runner to also-ran after Le Canard Enchaine revealed he had paid public funds to his wife and two children for work that they might not have done.

Fillon, who subsequently crashed out of the presidential race in the first round, denied wrongdoing.

Reporting by Yves Clarisse and Cyril Camu; Writing by Adrian Croft; Editing by Tom Heneghan