PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday backed a minister accused of conflict of interest in a property deal, urging the media "not to act as judge" in an embarrassing affair that has embroiled a close ally.
For days, France's new government has been swatting away allegations that Richard Ferrand, one of Macron's first prominent backers, favoured his wife in a lucrative deal with a public health insurance fund when he headed the company.
The affair is the lone snag in an otherwise trouble-free start to Macron's tenure, during which he has been praised for standing up to US President Donald Trump and taking a firm line with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Ferrand, a former Socialist lawmaker who joined Macron's camp last year and helped run his campaign, has denied any wrongdoing and rebuffed calls by rivals for his resignation.
"I am an honest man," the 54-year-old minister for territorial cohesion told France Inter radio on Wednesday.
The investigative Canard Enchaine newspaper reported last week that an insurance fund that Ferrand headed in his native Brittany -- where he is an MP -- agreed in 2011 to rent a building from his wife and carry out renovations that boosted its value.
Ferrand has dismissed the report as a "welcome present" from the media for the new government, saying that his wife made the fund the best offer and that he had no say in the matter.
The revelations are nonetheless an embarrassment for 39-year-old Macron, who campaigned on a promise to clean up and rejuvenate France's corruption-plagued political class.
His first piece of legislation -- to be unveiled next month -- will set new standards for ethics in public office.
Francois Baroin, who is leading the legislative campaign for the conservative Republicains party, criticised Macron for not taking "the necessary decisions" regarding Ferrand.
"I can believe the president's sincerity," Baroin said at a rally in the port city of Caen, but "I don't understand why he is not taking the necessary decisions, which are in his minister's interests."
Government spokesman Christophe Castaner acknowledged the "unease" generated by the revelations and said he was "favourable" to an inquiry, "if there are elements that lead the courts, or the police or the gendarmes to believe an inquiry is needed."
He insisted, however, that "from a legal point of view, nothing Richard Ferrand has done is objectionable."
Do not as I do
The Ferrand affair, as it has been dubbed, is an unwelcome distraction for Macron in the run-up to June parliamentary elections.
The crusading centrist badly needs to score a majority to push through his ambitious labour and economic reforms.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Tuesday that he understood the "exasperation of the French" faced with a steady drip of political scandals but that Ferrand would be forced to resign only if formally charged.
Prosecutors have said they currently have no grounds to do so, saying Ferrand is not accused of doing anything illegal.
French media warned however that the affair risked tarnishing Macron.
On Tuesday, another of his ministers was thrust into the spotlight after being accused by the far-right National Front of misusing European Parliament funds.
European affairs minister Marielle de Sarnez has filed a complaint for slander.
"Do what I say, not what I do," the left-wing Liberation daily wrote in a biting front-page headline Wednesday, alongside a picture of Ferrand. It added in an editorial: "When you preach morals in public life, this is a messy affair."