French president Emmanuel Macron has been plunged into the first crisis of his administration, with the resignation of four of 16 cabinet ministers, all for ethical reasons, scarcely a month after the government was formed.
"A quarter of the government has fallen," crowed Laurent Wauquiez, the hardliner vice-president of the conservative Les Républicains party.
One of the departing ministers was Macron's right-hand man during the presidential campaign, Richard Ferrand. The three others, all from François Bayrou's centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem), occupied the key posts of defence, justice and European affairs.
The Élysée had presented Wednesday's cabinet reshuffle as a routine "minor adjustment" after Sunday's legislative election, which gave Macron an absolute majority in the National Assembly.
Then Ferrand, the minister for territorial reform who was secretary general of Macron’s En Marche! movement, resigned on Monday.
Though he has not been formally placed under investigation, Ferrand is suspected of a conflict of interest in awarding a lucrative rental contract to his partner in 2011. He was head of a mutual health fund in Brittany at the time.
On Tuesday, the defence minister, Sylvie Goulard, announced she would not be a minister in the new government either. Goulard is one of five members of the European Parliament from the centrist MoDem party suspected of redeploying her EU-funded parliamentary assistant to MoDem headquarters in Paris. She said she wanted "to be able to freely demonstrate [her] good faith."
Once Goulard resigned, the positions of Bayrou, the minister for justice, and Mariel de Sarnez, Bayrou’s closest associate of several decades and the minister for European affairs, became untenable. They are suspected of devising a fake jobs system.
On June 9th, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation into MoDem’s alleged misuse of EU funds.
Bayrou had bolstered Macron’s presidential chances by striking an alliance with him in February, in the midst of the tempest over the conservative candidate François Fillon’s hiring of his wife and children as parliamentary assistants.
Bayrou demanded that Macron make a new law on probity in political life a priority if he was elected. As justice minister since May 17th, Bayrou drafted and presented the law which will ban the hiring of relatives as parliamentary assistants.
Bayrou and de Sarnez resigned on Wednesday morning. "It was unimaginable that the justice minister who professes to be exemplary and defends a draft law on the moralisation of public life could continue as if nothing had happened, when he is the object of an investigation by his own ministry," the Socialist group leader in the National Assembly, Olivier Faure, told Le Monde.
The Élysée has so far observed a deafening silence on the crisis, leaving it to Bayrou to explain himself at a press conference.
Bayrou denied that his party financed itself through fake jobs. “I have no doubt that I was the real target of these denunciations, whose goal was to destroy the credibility of the minister who was carrying the law. There are forces and powers for whom the moralisation of public life would be an obstacle to their influence and their lobbies.”
Bayrou said he did not want “to expose the president and the majority that I support to a campaign of lies”.
Ferrand is to head Macron's République En Marche party in the National Assembly. De Sarnez will lead the much smaller MoDem group. "How can behaviour not tolerated in a minister be acceptable in a president of a parliamentary group?" Le Monde's editorial asked. "Turning the National Assembly into a recycling plant for ministers in trouble is simply shocking."
The departure of Bayrou seems to suit everyone. Conservatives never forgave him for supporting François Hollande in 2012. With an absolute majority for his own party, Macron no longer needed the capricious older politician to carry out his reforms.
Macron has achieved his goal of splitting the conservatives. Thierry Solère, the leader of the self-described “constructive” wing of Les Républicains on Wednesday announced the creation of a 38-strong parliamentary group.
France has passed a dozen laws intended to end political corruption since 1988, almost always in the wake of a major scandal. As Bayrou drew up his law, critics denounced the "tyranny of transparency" that has seized France since the Fillon scandal.
Bayrou on Wednesday found himself promoting an umpteenth ethics law while at the same time proclaiming, “We cannot live in a society of perpetual and universal denunciation.”
The scandal that has engulfed MoDem is virtually the same as the one that plagued the extreme right-wing Front National during the presidential campaign.
Some excused Fillon and the Front National on the grounds that their hiring of relatives and use of EU taxpayers’ money for the party was common practice. The lesson of Macron’s first crisis may be that it is impossible to renew French politics with old politicians.