By Richard Balmforth
PARIS (Reuters) - A morality campaign by France's new government took a knock on Wednesday when media disclosed that one minister had rented business offices from his female partner, though the government defended him and said there was no cause for resignation.
Richard Ferrand, a close ally of President Emmanuel Macron, was reported by the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaine to have rented office space from his partner from 2011 for health insurance companies he headed. Ferrand denies any wrongdoing.
The conservative Republican party said in a statement that it would ask prosecutors to look into the matter.
With Macron's government about to unveil a draft law aimed at cleaning up French political life, which is frequently beset by corruption scandals, government spokesman Christophe Castaner admitted: "This (the disclosure) comes at a bad time."
"But one thing is certain. There is nothing illegal here. There is nothing that is not correct morally," Castaner told Europe 1 radio, later telling journalists there was no question of Ferrand resigning as minister for territorial cohesion.
The affair follows a bigger scandal which torpedoed the presidential bid of conservative former prime minister Francois Fillon.
Fillon went from front-runner in the race for the Elysee to also-ran after Le Canard enchaine revealed he had paid public funds to his wife and two children for work as parliamentary assistants that they might not have done.
Fillon, who subsequently crashed out of the presidential race in the first round, has denied wrongdoing but admitted an error of judgment, as he did for a second scandal over several expensive tailor-made suits he accepted from a prominent African affairs lawyer.
Fillon's party said an investigation should be launched into Ferrand if prosecutors found the accusations stood up and said all politicians should get the same treatment before the law.
Critics of the new government, however, used the disclosures of Ferrand's past professional activities to suggest hypocrisy, given its stated commitment to stamping out abuses of privilege in political life such as that exposed by the Fillon case.
Francois Bayrou, the new justice minister, is gathering ideas for a new draft law on ethics in public life before parliamentary elections due in mid-June.
Among those quick to try to make political capital from the affair was far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom Macron beat for the presidency in the final round of voting on May 7.
She called on him to quit, telling franceinfo radio the case in question was "very similar" to the one that felled Fillon and amounted to "absolutely immoral personal enrichment".
Ferrand, 54, who was rewarded with a ministerial post after leading Macron's successful presidential campaign, headed health insurance companies in Brittany between 1990 and 2012 and from 2011 rented office space in Brest from a company belonging to his partner, Sandrine Doucen.
Ferrand defended himself in a statement early on Wednesday, saying the rent paid had been lower than the market price.
He also denied trying to cover up the personal links he had with the person from whom he was renting on behalf of the insurers, saying the decision was made in full transparency.
"The decision was made in full knowledge of the ties that linked Richard Ferrand and the proprietor of the offices ...," he said.
(Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)