FILE PHOTO - Marielle de Sarnez, French junior minister for European Affairs, arrives May 24, 2017 at the Elysee Palace to attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, France. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Brian Love and Simon Carraud
PARIS (Reuters) - Emmanuel Macron's pledge of squeaky-clean leadership hit another snag on Tuesday when a second minister in the government of the new French president had to deny accusations by political foes of financial misconduct days before parliamentary elections.
In the latest twist ahead of the vote in mid-June, Macron's opponents were relishing his government's discomfort amid scandals similar to those which hurt his rivals in his campaign for the presidency and helped him beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen on May 7.
Macron's junior minister for European affairs, Marielle de Sarnez, issued a statement saying she had done nothing wrong in hiring a helper in her work as a member of the European Parliament, among 19 in all that prosecutors said were being investigated.
She also said she planned to sue the person behind the allegations - a member of Le Pen's National Front - on the grounds that the accusations were slanderous.
The affair comes less than two weeks from a two-round vote, on June 11 and 18, where centrist Macron hopes his Republic on the Move party will win control of parliament to consolidate his rule after his presidential win over Le Pen.
And it comes on the heels of accusations of improper financial dealings involving another government member, Richard Ferrand, a close ally of Macron who directed the 39-year-old ex-banker's winning campaign.
De Sarnez denied wrongdoing as French prosecutors said they had opened a preliminary inquiry into the allegations concerning assistants hired to help her and other French representatives at the European Parliament.
Le Pen is herself the target of a separate judicial inquiry into accusations she and her party put assistants on the payroll of the European Parliament when they were in reality working on national constituency matters and not European assembly duties.
Sophie Montel, a National Front politician, said she filed the request for an inquiry after speaking to Le Pen, whose bid for president, she said, had been hit by news of similar inquiries.
"We wanted to do this to denounce double-standards," she told BFM TV.
De Sarnez said her assistant, who is now part of her ministerial support team, had been registered and vetted by the European Parliament at the time in question.
She said she would take legal action against the author of the accusation on the basis that it was tantamount to slander.
A source in the prosecutor's office said the matter was, at present, a procedural one where a preliminary inquiry is opened to assess whether there are grounds for deeper investigation.
The timing is sensitive ahead of elections in which Macron is so far tipped by pollsters to win a majority in the 577-seat National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
Macron swept to power promising a non-partisan government that would bring in legislation to curb corruption in the corridors of power and restore voter confidence in politicians.
In the other affair, political opponents have called for the resignation of Ferrand, minister of urban planning and housing, following a report in a satirical newspaper that he rented office space from his female partner from 2011 for health insurance companies he headed.
The newspaper, le Canard Enchaine, also said Ferrand employed his son as his parliamentary assistant for several months in 2014.
Ferrand has denied doing anything dubious, either legally or morally, and has refused to step down. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has said voters will be the final judge of the matter at the election.
The allegations have the whiff of the scandal which enveloped - and eventually doomed - the presidential bid of conservative Francois Fillon.
Once the frontrunner, Fillon was hit months before voting day by press reports that he paid his wife and family, lavishly if legally, from parliamentary funds, and accepted luxury gifts from a lawyer who was for decades an intermediary in Franco-African politics and affairs of state.
Fillon denounced what he called pre-election mud-slinging but he was eliminated early in the race.
Le Pen, who lost the runoff to Macron, was hit too by news during the campaign that she was under investigation over use of European Parliament funds.
She refused to attend questioning by investigators, which was her right under the immunity rules of the European Parliament, where she too has been a representative.
(The story corrects headline to read 'sleaze charge by opponents')
(Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Richard Balmforth)