French judges on Friday charged Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti in a conflict of interest inquiry that could prove embarrassing for President Emmanuel Macron as he gears for re-election.
A former star lawyer appointed by Macron last year, the outspoken Dupond-Moretti has been accused of misusing his position to settle scores with opponents from his legal career.
He is the first sitting French justice minister to be charged in a legal probe. He has denounced it as a vendetta by a judicial corps hoping to have him replaced.
"Unsurprisingly, he has been charged," Dupond-Moretti's lawyer Christophe Ingrain said after his client left the Law Court of the Republic in Paris, which hears cases of alleged wrongdoing by serving ministers.
"His explanations were unfortunately not enough to overturn a decision that was made before his hearing," Ingrain added, saying he would file to have the decision annulled.
In a highly unusual move, investigators spent 15 hours searching Dupond-Moretti's office at the justice ministry on July 1.
The accusations relate to administrative inquiries into three judges who ordered police in 2014 to pore through the phone records of dozens of lawyers and magistrates, including Dupond-Moretti, as part of an investigation into former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The judiciary accused Dupond-Moretti of a witch-hunt.
He denied the allegations, saying he was merely acting on the recommendations of his staff to investigate possible mistakes by the magistrates who oversaw the seizures of the phone records.
Prime Minister Jean Castex defended Dupond-Moretti after the indictment, saying the inquiries of the judges were carried out on the basis of investigations launched by his predecessor.
"The prime minister reiterates his complete confidence in the minister, asking him to pursue his reforms" of the justice system, Castex's office said in a statement.
- 'It's complicated' -
But Macron is likely to face calls from the opposition to sack his minister, not least because he is not the first member of his top team to be charged with an offence.
Shortly after his election in 2017, Macron dismissed his close aide Richard Ferrand from his post as minister for territorial cohesion after he was placed under investigation over claims he favoured his wife in a lucrative property deal with a public health insurance fund.
Dupond-Moretti's supporters say he is the target of a witch hunt by the three judges, who sit on France's increasingly powerful Financial Prosecutor's Office.
Two of the lawmakers who sit on the Law Court, which also includes professional judges, resigned from their posts to protest Dupond-Moretti's questioning.
One cabinet member told AFP she was not certain that Dupond-Moretti, famous for his record of getting his clients acquitted, would survive the scandal.
"It's complicated, especially when you're justice minister," she said.
"A conflict of interest offense is very serious when it implies that a minister acted for his own interests, and not those of the nation," Elise Van Beneden Of the Anticor anti-corruption watchdog told AFP.
"The question of M Dupond-Moretti's continued involvement in the government deserves to be raised," she said.
- String of setbacks -
The minister went into Friday's hearing weakened by recent revelations that he failed to declare 300,000 euros ($350,000) in royalties he earned from a one-man show in which he starred while still a lawyer.
He said it was a mistake, and his aides say he has since settled the bill arising from the royalties on his one-man theatre production entitled "Eric Dupond-Moretti to the Bar".
He suffered a major setback on the electoral front as well when he stood for office for the first time in last month's regional and departmental elections, winning less than 10 percent of the vote.
So far, Macron has stood by his minister.
"I think the justice minister has the same rights as anyone else, that is a presumption of innocence and the ability to defend his rights," the president said while attending Thursday's Tour de France race stage.