Hollande Aide Quits in Blow to France’s Most-Unpopular President

A top aide to President Francois Hollande quit after a news report of an alleged conflict of interest, in the latest blow to France’s most-unpopular president.

Online newspaper Mediapart said yesterday that Aquilino Morelle, Hollande’s policy and media adviser, had a conflict of interest in 2007, before joining the president’s office. Mediapart said the aide, a doctor by training, advised Denmark-based drugs company H. Lundbeck A/S while he was an auditor for the state’s independent health, social and drugs commission Inspection Generale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS). Mediapart also said he used Elysee palace resources for private matters.

“This is devastating for Hollande, for his efforts to create an image of a modest and exemplary leader,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “It shows a laissez-faire at the helm of France that’s incomprehensible for most people.”

This is the second time Hollande has been confronted with the alleged wrongdoing of a close ally, belying his campaign promise of running an irreproachable and “exemplary” team. His budget minister was forced to resign last year after Mediapart revealed his secret Swiss accounts. The latest report may further dent the approval ratings of Hollande, who’s already France’s most unpopular leader since polling started in 1958, when the current constitution was established.

The scandal puts the Socialist president at odds with his campaign mantra that he would be a “normal president.” It comes at a time when he is seeking to push through 50 billion euros ($69 billion) in spending cuts that will involve belt-tightening and shrinking social-welfare benefits.

Tough Times

“These are tough times for French people and they see that at the heart of the nation’s power, the president lets someone act wrongfully, while demanding a lot from them to help the country,” Dubois said.

Socialist Party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadelis asked Morelle to “quickly” explain his actions. The High Authority for Transparency, an independent body that reviews the assets and interests of the government and parliament members, told Bloomberg it will looks into Morelle’s case.

Morelle, who denies any conflict of interest, was one of Hollande’s most trusted aides, with an office next to the president’s, overlooking the lawn of the Elysee presidential palace.

Commenting on the resignation during a visit to a Michelin & Cie. tire manufacturing site in central France, Hollande said “Aquilino Morelle has taken the only decision he could have.”

Morelle’s ‘Behavior’

In addition to the alleged conflict of interest, the Mediapart report also highlighted Morelle’s “behavior” at the Elysee Palace.

Mediapart said he used the presidency’s chauffeurs to drive his son around; that a shoe-shine man was ordered to come to his office to take care of his 30 pairs of luxury shoes; that he dipped into the Elysee’s fine-wines cellar and that he spent most Fridays at a luxury Paris hammam. Mediapart also mentioned his rude attitude toward some Elysee staff.

Morelle denied any wrongdoing on his Facebook page.

“Not a single time was I involved in a conflict of interest,” he wrote. He confirmed the use of a chauffeur for his son. Morelle’s partner Laurence Engel is Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti’s chief of staff.

The IGAS has no record of Morelle requesting permission to work with a pharmaceutical company, daily newspaper Le Monde reported today.

Explanation Sought

Morelle is also an ally of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, with whom he worked in the early 2000s, and of Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg.

Before joining Hollande’s presidential campaign team in 2012 as his speech writer, Morelle oversaw Montebourg’s campaign in the Socialist Party primaries.

Mediapart, the investigative news website headed by Edwy Plenel, a former Le Monde journalist, earlier this year published excerpts of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s tapped calls to his lawyer, suggesting he got a judge -- named during his tenure -- to try to influence the outcome of legal deliberations in one of France’s highest courts.

Sarkozy eventually published a statement, one of two since he left power in May 2012, to deny any wrongdoing.

Budget Minister

Last year, Hollande’s Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac resigned after lying under oath that he had secret Swiss accounts, before later admitting that he did.

In 2010, the French presidency was roiled by another Mediapart report.

The website published a transcript of L’Oreal SA heiress Liliane Bettencourt’s conversations with her friends, adviser and lawyer, revealing she may have funded politicians including Sarkozy, that she had undeclared accounts in Switzerland and Singapore and hidden real estate, including an island in the Seychelles.

The charges of illegal political funding for Sarkozy were dismissed. A court eventually appointed someone to manage Bettencourt’s affairs.

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