It would seem that Arnaud Montebourg just can’t help himself. The newly appointed Minister for Productive Recovery (in essence, Industry) is now under investigation for having violated the closed nature of a criminal investigation into corruption allegations made against Jean-Marie Le Guen, a Socialist bigwig in Marseilles.
Montebourg took it upon himself at the end of 2011 to investigate long-standing allegations of corruption that had swirled around Le Guen and his brother for many years. The brothers had often been accused of having profited from Jean-Marie’s political position and the awarding of large public works contracts. Montebourg, a flamboyant former criminal lawyer, who has much of the barrister’s swagger about him, reported his findings back to Socialist Party General Secretary, Martine Aubry. That report allegedly contained snippets of sealed testimony and police interviews with various witnesses in the parallel police investigation.
It is too early to know whether or not the charges (which have not been officially brought – this is only an investigation) will stick and even less clear whether Montebourg could eventually convicted of this offence (although it would appear that the facts on which the complaint is based have been confirmed by independent sources, not least Aubry herself who tersely sent the report back to Montebourg when she received the first version, asking him to remove the offending material). But this is the second criminal case against Montebourg since he assumed his ministerial office only one month ago. On 23 May, he was found guilty for insulting the former directors of SeaFrance: a struggling (now collapsed) ferry operator (Montebourg had branded them “crooks”). Montebourg was ordered to pay a symbolic fine of one euro, and he laughed off the conviction pointing out the criminal past of one of the plaintiffs.
François Hollande had decreed prior to his election that his administration would contain no politicians that had been found guilty of any offences (presumably, especially offences related to their public life). If Montebourg clocks up yet another offence, his position becomes vulnerable. Hollande can little afford to make further exceptions, given Montebourg’s first offence and the fact that the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has an old offence of favouritism on his record from some Nantaise dealings in the 1990s in relation to public works contracts.
Montebourg is largely in government today because of his strong association with the far left of the Socialist party, thanks to which he did well in the primaries last year. He appears however uncertain in his new role, given an apparently narrow margin of manoeuvre, and his natural talent for pompous self-promotive public speaking is starting to frustrate down-to-earth union types who are his audience in his new role. Businesses distrust him due to his avowardly protectionist stance.
If this latest case moves forward, it could provide Hollande and Ayrault the political cover that they need to dump Montebourg. That might be good for the government, but also for French industry, and ultimately the “productive recovery” itself.