- June 4, 2018
PARIS — France’s top financial prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation on Monday into whether President Emmanuel Macron’s chief of staff had breached conflict-of-interest rules in previous positions, the first accusation of corruption against the president’s inner circle since he took office a year ago.
The chief of staff, Alexis Kohler, 45, has been described by the newspaper Le Monde as a member of the “trio that rules France,” alongside Mr. Macron and his special adviser, Ismaël Emelien. The inquiry follows a complaint filed by the anticorruption group Anticor, which accused Mr. Kohler of influence peddling and of breaking conflict-of-interest rules.
The prosecutor’s office said it had opened an inquiry after news reports detailed the “conditions and circumstances” under which Mr. Kohler dealt with cases involving an Italian-Swiss shipping and cruise firm, the Mediterranean Shipping Company, while he was at the agency that handles state holdings and at the Economy Ministry. He went on to join the Mediterranean Shipping Company, or M.S.C., as financial director in 2016.
The complaint stemmed from findings of the investigative website Mediapart, which revealed last month that Mr. Kohler was related to the owners of M.S.C.: His mother is a cousin of Rafaela Aponte, who co-founded the company with her husband, Gianluigi, in 1970.
A spokesman for Mr. Macron said on Monday that Mr. Kohler would cooperate with the inquiry, but a statement the president’s office sent to Agence France-Presse said that the Anticor complaint relied on “unfounded suspicions” and “serious factual errors” from news articles.
“Alexis Kohler has always kept his superiors informed of his personal ties with the M.S.C. company,” the statement said.
Mr. Kohler worked from 2008 to 2012 at the agency that manages the state’s holdings in dozens of companies, including Air France-KLM, Renault and Orange. He specialized in the transportation sector and sat on the board of STX, the owner of the shipyard in the western French city of St.-Nazaire where M.S.C. vessels were assembled.
Le Monde reported that the lawsuit filed by Anticor, which the newspaper said it had viewed, stated that “Alexis Kohler couldn’t have ignored that there was a conflict of interest in representing the French state” while on the board of STX, at a time when “his family was the owner of one its main clients.”
The Élysée denied the accusations to The Times on Monday, saying of M.S.C. that Mr. Kohler had “systematically recused himself from all the decisions about this company,” whether at the holdings agency, at the Economy Ministry or in his current role as Mr. Macron’s chief of staff.
Yet Mediapart says that in 2014, a public ethics committee that monitors civil servants blocked Mr. Kohler from joining M.S.C., the world’s second-largest shipping company in terms of container capacity, because he had been involved in negotiations about the purchase of a liner by M.S.C. while he was on the STX board.
Mr. Kohler became Mr. Macron’s chief of staff when Mr. Macron was appointed economy minister in August 2014. When Mr. Macron stepped down from that post two years later, Mr. Kohler asked to leave the ministry, and he joined M.S.C. months later, according to the Mediapart investigation.
French law allows civil servants to work for private companies for a limited number of years before returning to public administration.
While at M.S.C., Mr. Kohler helped Mr. Macron with his 2017 presidential campaign, according to reports published in the French news media. He was appointed chief of staff in May 2017.