French prosecutors on Friday opened a probe into possible favoritism over an event in Las Vegas in January 2016 at which French President Emmanuel Macron, who was economy minister at the time, was the star speaker.
Macron’s Labor Minister Muriel Penicaud is at the center of the formal investigation into the event, which was staged by the Havas PR firm at a cost of nearly 400,000 euros ($457,000) in taxpayer money.
She headed Business France, a unit within the economy ministry that hired Havas for the promotional evening for French hi-tech companies at the Consumer Electronics Show without putting out a public tender.
Penicaud issued a terse statement on Friday saying she had “made note” of the inquiry announced by the Paris prosecutors’ office, adding that she denies any wrongdoing “with the utmost assurance”.
Government spokesman Christophe Castaner said that if the probe leads to charges against Penicaud she would have to resign.
But he played down the investigation, saying: “We’re only talking about exceeding the limit for public contracts.”
The daily Liberation reported that an audit had revealed that there had been “no purchase order, no signed contract, no bill” connected with the Vegas event.
Havas said it assumed that the event fell under a “framework contract” it had signed with Business France in June 2015 — after winning a public tender — to “promote France’s economic attractiveness”.
As a result, the event “did not necessitate a specific bidding process”, Havas said.
Liberation said Penicaud is also suspected of waiting six months before revealing the audit to Business France’s board of directors, and then presenting the board with “a biased overview”.
Anti-corruption investigators searched the offices of Havas and Business France on June 20, discovering an email suggesting that Penicaud had been “briefed” ahead of the event that it could raise red flags.
Several of Macron’s economy ministry colleagues formerly worked at Havas, and the probe is looking into the roles played by some of his ministry staff.
Macron won power in May promising to rid politics of corruption and conflicts of interest.