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French prez seeks clean gov't as 2 ministers fight suspicion

Associated Press logo Associated Press 30/05/2017 By ELAINE GANLEY and PHILIPPE SOTTO, Associated Press
FILE - In this Monday, May 22, 2017 file photo, French Minister for European Affairs Marielle de Sarnez gestures to photographers during a round table meeting of general affairs ministers in Brussels, Belgium. The Paris prosecutor's office says it has opened an investigation into 19 French members of the European parliament after one of their colleagues, from far-right National Front, claimed that they used aides for political activity in France while they were on the parliament's payroll. It wouldn't name any of them but confirmed that new French minister of European affairs Marielle de Sarnez filed a slander complaint against the NF's MEP who initiated the report to the prosecutor. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Monday, May 22, 2017 file photo, French Minister for European Affairs Marielle de Sarnez gestures to photographers during a round table meeting of general affairs ministers in Brussels, Belgium. The Paris prosecutor's office says it has opened an investigation into 19 French members of the European parliament after one of their colleagues, from far-right National Front, claimed that they used aides for political activity in France while they were on the parliament's payroll. It wouldn't name any of them but confirmed that new French minister of European affairs Marielle de Sarnez filed a slander complaint against the NF's MEP who initiated the report to the prosecutor. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

PARIS — Two ministers of newly elected President Emmanuel Macron — who promised a squeaky-clean government — are defending themselves against suspicions of ethical lapses just as a new law is being prepared to inject morality into politics.

No investigation was being opened against Social Cohesion Minister Richard Ferrand for business practices that carried undertones of potential conflicts of interest.

But the pressure was on Ferrand because he was a trailblazer for Macron's En Marche (On the Move) movement, among the first to sign onto the initiative that swept him to the presidency.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Tuesday evening that despite the "exasperation of the French" Ferrand would remain in the government.

However, any minister placed under investigation will have to resign, Philippe said in an interview with France 2 TV. Old behaviors that "are no longer accepted today, can no longer be tolerated" even if they aren't illegal, the prime minister added.

European Affairs Minister Marielle de Sarnez also was in an unwelcome spotlight after she filed a slander complaint against a far-right European Parliament member. The lawmaker, Sophie Montel, has claimed that a batch of fellow French members of the European body improperly used their EU aides for political activities in France.

Montel, who pointed the finger at colleagues, is suspected of doing the same. She is among the National Front party parliamentarians under investigation, along with party leader Marine Le Pen, for allegedly cheating the European Parliament out of about 300,000 euros ($336,000) paid to aides who held political jobs on the side.

The Paris prosecutor's office confirmed that 19 French European Parliament members were under investigation, but refused to name names.

The prosecutor's office said that in addition to the lawmakers, more than 20 parliamentary aides are under investigation for allegedly receiving money through an alleged breach of trust.

Suspicions about Ferrand, who is close to the president, arose last week when the weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine reported that an insurance company struck a rental deal with a company owned by Ferrand's romantic partner when he led the firm.

A report published in the Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday said the insurance company had contracts with both Ferrand's ex-wife and his current companion. The newspaper also reported that Ferrand advocated for a bill advantageous to insurance companies in 2012, when he was a lawmaker.

Ferrand denied any wrongdoing in a statement Tuesday.

"I refute and condemn all the suspicions," he said.

Macron, 39, has vowed to clean up French politics. A law to notably prohibit politicians from hiring family members, currently a legal practice, is to be formally presented to the Cabinet in June.

A once-leading candidate in the presidential race, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, was brought down by claims that he hired his wife and other family members as aides who allegedly did little work for high pay.

Macron defeated Le Pen by a landslide in the May 7 presidential election.

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