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article imageProbe opened into Vegas event featuring France's Macron

By Sophie DEVILLER (AFP)     Jul 7, 2017 in World

French prosecutors on Friday opened a probe into possible favouritism over a glitzy event in Las Vegas last year at which French President Emmanuel Macron was the star speaker.

Macron's Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud is at the centre 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.

Macron, 39, was economy minister at the time.

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."

Four scandal-tainted ministers have left their jobs since Macron was elected president in May pledging to clean up politics after a series of scandals involving ministers under his Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande.

The left-leaning 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.

- 'Malfunction' -

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.

In March, then economy minister Michel Sapin blamed the affair on a "malfunction" by Business France, which "if it thought the timeline was too short, should have said it could not organise the event according to the rules, which it didn't do."

He said Macron and his team were "totally in the clear".

Business France, in a statement at the time, recognised "potential irregularity" in the organisation of the event.

Penicaud is spearheading Macron's drive to overhaul France's labour code, with a new law set to be adopted by September 20.

Last month, four of Macron's ministers resigned in a reshuffle aimed at reflecting the campaign pledge.

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