BREST • French prosecutors said yesterday they were opening a preliminary investigation into a property deal involving one of President Emmanuel Macron's ministers.
Mr Macron had on Wednesday defended Mr Richard Ferrand, a close ally who led Macron's presidential campaign, over allegations he favoured his wife in a lucrative deal with a public health insurance fund when he headed the company.
The timing of the announcement by prosecutors in the western port of Brest is embarrassing for Mr Macron because the government was to unveil a draft law on cleaning up French politics yesterday.
The pledge to rejuvenate France's corruption-plagued political class was one of the central planks of the campaign that swept 39-year-old centrist Mr Macron to the presidency on May 7.
The prosecutors' announcement also comes 10 days from a parliamentary election where Mr Macron, 39, hopes his new political party will win control of the National Assembly and consolidate his grip on power.
Mr Ferrand, one of Mr Macron's first prominent backers and formerly secretary-general of the President's Republique En Marche (Republic on the Move) party, has denied any wrongdoing.
He told France Inter radio yesterday: "I am an honest man."
The Canard Enchaine investigative newspaper reported last week that a medical insurance fund that Mr 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.
Mr Ferrand, the 54-year-old minister for territorial cohesion, has dismissed the report as a "welcome present" from the media for the new government.
He says his wife made the fund the best offer and that he had no say in the matter.
Another issue is his hiring of his son for four months as an assistant paid from parliamentary funds.
Mr Ferrand has denied wrongdoing, and while hiring family as parliamentary assistants is banned in some countries, it is not illegal in France.
Two of Mr Macron's main opponents during the presidential race were hamstrung by corruption allegations. Conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon's campaign was derailed by sleaze allegations and he is now under formal investigation, not because he paid members of his family from public funds, but because of allegations that his wife in particular did not do much actual work for the money.
Meanwhile, far-right leader Marine Le Pen is also under investigation with regard to the hiring of party activists as assistants in the European Parliament.
In France, the opening of a preliminary inquiry does not imply guilt. Prosecutors can decide after such preliminary checks whether there are grounds for a full-scale probe.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS