24th Mar 2018

French minister resigns over EU parliament assistant case

  • Goulard (r) leaves Macron's government to "freely freely demonstrate [her] good faith". (Photo: European Parliament)

French defence minister Sylvie Goulard resigned on Tuesday (20 June) over suspicions of fake assistant jobs when she was a member of the European Parliament.

"In case the preliminary investigation on the Modem party were to lead to verify the conditions in which my assistants were employed in the European Parliament, I wish to be able to freely demonstrate my good faith and all the work I accomplished there," she said in a statement, referring to her centrist party (Modem).

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Goulard was an MEP, from 2009 until she became a minister in May, in the liberal Alde group.

French judges opened a preliminary investigation earlier this month for embezzlement after a former assistant to former Modem MEP Jean-Luc Benhamias said he was paid in 2011 with EU parliament money, but had worked in the party's headquarters in Paris.

The case is similar to the one against the far-right National Front party (FN), which is suspected of having paid some 20 party members that were registered as parliament assistants. However, they had almost never worked in Brussels or Strasbourg.

Judges started to look into Modem's use of EU parliament assistants after a FN MEP, Sophie Montel, wrote to them to say that, based on a "principle of equality", they should also investigate the centrist party.

The Modem case, and Goulard's resignation, could be an embarrassment to French president Emmanuel Macron and his prime minister, Edouard Philippe.

Along with Goulard, two other ministers are under the scrutiny of judges: European affairs minister Marielle de Sarnez, and justice minister Francois Bayrou.

Bayrou, who is the party leader, is suspected of having paid his personal secretary with EU parliament money.

"I am sure of the outcome [of the investigation] and of the proofs that will be certainly brought forward," he said last week to deny any wrongdoing.

Bayrou, as justice minister, is the ultimate superior to the prosecutors who are overseeing the investigation. But he gave assurances that he would refrain from asking for information about the judges' findings.

The investigation was opened just as he was presenting a bill to "moralise" French politics in order to "re-establish trust in our democratic life".

Bayrou's support for Macron during the presidential campaign was seen as being instrumental in his victory – helping to convince a large chunk of the centrist electorate to rally behind the newcomer to politics.

Last Sunday, in second the round of the legislative elections, the Modem party won 42 seats in the National Assembly, strengthening even further the majority for Macron's political movement, La Republique en Marche.

As Macron and Philippe are reshuffling the government to take into account the election outcome, Goulard's resignation is the second in two days.

On Monday, minister for territorial cohesion Richard Ferrand, Macron's closest political ally, said he would not be a minister anymore and would become the party group leader in the lower house.

But the move has been considered a demotion, after Ferrand was suspected of helping in real estate deals for his wife in the past, as well as employing his children as assistants in the French parliament.

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