Scandal-hit advisor resigns in fresh blow to Hollande

Scandal-hit advisor resigns in fresh blow to Hollande

PARIS - Agence France-Presse
Scandal-hit advisor resigns in fresh blow to Hollande

This file picture dated February 25, 2013 shows political advisor of France's President Francois Hollande, Aquilino Morelle, arriving at the Elysee presidential palace. AFP Photo

A close advisor to Francois Hollande resigned on Friday after allegations about an alleged conflict of interest and his extravagant lifestyle, in a fresh blow to the beleaguered French president.
In a statement to AFP, senior political advisor Aquilino Morelle said he was stepping down but denied any wrongdoing.
"In the last 48 hours I have had to deal with insinuations and allegations calling my honour into question," he said.
"I want to reiterate that I committed no fault. I was never in a situation of conflict of interest," Morelle said.
"Nonetheless, I have decided to put an end to my duties as an advisor to the presidency of the republic... to be entirely free to respond to these attacks."       

Morelle had been under pressure after allegations from investigative website Mediapart that he breached ethical guidelines for public servants by doing work for pharmaceutical companies in 2007, while he was a senior official in the ministry for social affairs.
Concerns had also been raised about Morelle's alleged extravagance at the presidential Elysee Palace, at a time when Hollande's government is asking French voters to accept spending cuts to rein in the country's deficit.
Mediapart reported that Morelle, the head of Hollande's communications operation, maintains a collection of 30 pairs of hand-made shoes at the Elysee that are professionally polished every two months.
The advisor's taste for the best things in life also reportedly led to him regularly raiding the palace's celebrated wine cellar for fine vintages to accompany working lunches.
Morelle has not contested the accuracy of the shoes revelation and has also confirmed Mediapart's claim that the two chauffeurs at his disposal were sometimes tasked with picking up his son from school, citing his "extremely busy schedule".
He had, however, denied the conflict of interest charges.
"At no point was I in a situation of a conflict of interest," Morelle wrote on his Facebook page in response to Mediapart's report. "As a civil servant, there are a certain number of outside activities which are permitted by the law, including education and advice."       

However, the relevant rules governing such activities require authorisation and the department Morelle worked for said Friday that it could find no trace of any such authorisation in his case.
Regardless of whether Morelle acted inappropriately, the revelations are deeply embarrassing for Hollande, who is struggling with the worst approval ratings of any French leader in modern times.
Following his 2012 election, Hollande vowed that he would run a government that was ethically beyond reproach.        

But that ambition was dealt a major blow last year when he was forced to sack Jerome Cahuzac after it was revealed that the then-budget minister, whose responsibilities included combatting tax evasion, had a secret Swiss bank account.
Media commentators suggested Friday it was no coincidence that the revelations about Morelle emerged in a week that has seen the ruling Socialist Party hit by divisions over new Prime Minister Manuel Valls's announcement of 50 billion euros ($69 billion) of cuts in state spending over the next three years.
The inclusion in the programme of a freeze on a wide range of welfare benefits has infuriated the party's left-wing and some deputies are threatening to vote against the government when the first legislation related to the cuts programme comes before parliament on April 30.
Morelle is seen as an influential backer of the centrist Valls and is reported to have lobbied Hollande to promote the popular former interior minister following the stinging losses suffered by the Socialists in municipal elections last month.