The charges filed this week against France’s fourth-most senior official have dealt a brutal blow to the president, who rose to power on a promise to clean up French politics. “I ask that Richard Ferrand resign as the president of the national assembly!” Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, the leader of the sovereignist Debout La France party, tweeted. “In the upper echelons of government, Macronism rhymes with corruption!” The call echoed by Socialist leader Olivier Faure, who tweeted: “Being charged is not a sign of guilt but the serenity of the public debate supposes that those who exercise national institutional functions resign pending the decision of the justice system.”
Mr Ferrand has denied any wrongdoing, adding he would use the investigation to defend himself and was confident the case would be dropped. He also said he was determined to stay in his job despite the probe.
Allegations against Mr Ferrand first emerged in 2017, embarrassing Mr Macron who had just won power on a promise to clean up French politics and tighten up on ethical standards.
Mr Ferrand, who had been appointed as a minister in Mr Macron’s first cabinet, stepped down but made a comeback after prosecutors dropped the case, saying there was no basis for a prosecution.
In 2018, however, the anti-corruption group Anticor filed another complaint against Mr Ferrand, forcing the case, which relates to a property deal between a public health insurance fund he was managing and his wife, to be re-opened.
In the early hours of Thursday, the magistrates leading the probe said that the case should proceed and put Mr Ferrand under formal investigation.
Some opposition parties, however, struck a more cautious tone, with the conservative Les Républicains party stressing the need to “respect the presumption of innocence”.
Mr Ferrand’s role as the “fourth most-senior government member will however be difficult to maintain in the short-term,” the party’s spokeswoman Lydia Guirous told RFI radio later on Thursday.
The reaction of the anti-Macron, far-right Rassemblement national (RN) party was uncharacteristically subdued, with spokesman Sébastien Chenu also saying that Mr Ferrand should have “the right to presumption of innocence”.
“If we don’t respect the rules of law, then there is no more law,” Mr Chenu told Europe 1 radio.
The Macron government, for its part, has rallied around the parliament chief.
Reacting to the probe, Mr Macron said that Mr Ferrand still has “all my confidence,” government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said.
Mr Ferrand is a “loyal, upstanding man with an exemplary political career,” Mrs Ndiaye told Europe 1 radio, adding that there was no reason for him to resign.
Speaking to TF1 television on Thursday evening, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe expressed his “total support” for his “friend,” adding that he “trusted” Mr Ferrand to prove his innocence.
Under French law, being put under formal investigation means there is “serious or consistent evidence” that points to probable involvement of a suspect in a crime.
Many investigations, however, are dropped without going to court.
The investigative weekly the Canard enchaîné revealed two years ago that in 2011 a public insurance fund that Mr Ferrand headed in his native region of Brittany agreed to rent a commercial building from Mr Ferrand’s wife and also invest 184,000 euros (£164,000) in renovations.
The work carried out drastically increased the value of the property.
Mr Ferrand insists his wife made the fund the best offer and that he had no say in the matter.