French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a ceremony to honour three police officers and an administrative worker after they were killed by a 45-year-old suspected radicalised attacker last Thursday, at the Police Prefecture in Paris, France on October 8, 2019. (REUTERS Photo)
BRUSSELS, October 10 (Reuters): French President Emmanuel Macron insisted Sylvie Goulard was the victim of a "political game" on Thursday after France's choice to be the head of EU industrial policy was emphatically rejected by European lawmakers.
Goulard was pressed by lawmakers over her role in a jobs scandal, in which she denies wrongdoing, and also her work in previous years as an adviser for a U.S. think-tank which paid her more than 10,000 euros a month.
Her rejection, led by the biggest group in the European Parliament, comes against the backdrop of a power struggle between lawmakers and Macron about who should take leadership roles in the next European Commission.
The wrestle for influence comes at a time when the EU executive needs a strong mandate to take on a host of challenges over the next five years, ranging from anti-EU populists at home to a more assertive China abroad.
After a second hearing, Goulard, an experienced former French diplomat and EU lawmaker, was rejected on Thursday by 82 EU lawmakers in two committees charged with vetting her, with only 29 backing her - failing to reach the requisite two-thirds support.
"EU citizens won't put their trust in their institutions when a Commissioner sees absolutely no problem in making 10,000 euros a month from a private lobby in addition to her MEP salary," said French far-left lawmaker Manon Aubry.
However Macron saw different motivations for the rejection.
"Sylvie Goulard has been the object of a political game which affects the whole of the European Commission," said a statement issued by his office.
Macron said later: "I need to understand what was at play. Resentment. Pettiness maybe. But I need to understand."
The rejection complicates the task of incoming European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who was also put forward by Macron. While she is a centre-right politician, she was not the first choice of lawmakers of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the biggest bloc in parliament.
She has already seen her Hungarian and Romanian candidates for roles rejected by the assembly.
In July, Macron killed off an EPP initiative to decide who would become the next head of the powerful European Commission, which helps decide policy for 500 million Europeans.
Macron proposed Goulard for the post of EU internal market commissioner, responsible for European defence integration, a role which would have seen her manage a new multi-billion euro defence fund.
Following Macron's 2017 election victory, Goulard was appointed defence minister but resigned barely a month into the job after an investigation into the way her political party, MoDem, hired assistants in the European assembly.
At an earlier hearing on Oct. 2, Goulard denied wrongdoing, saying the funds had been repaid and that she considered the affair a human resources issue rather than a legal one.
She said she risked becoming a victim of a "political game" among rival political groups in the European Parliament, particularly at the hands of the EPP.
"I am not under formal investigation," she told lawmakers on Thursday as she protested her innocence once more.
She also expressed regret that her work for the Berggruen Institute, during her time as an EU lawmaker from 2013 to 2016, had cast a shadow over her candidacy.
European lawmaker Stephane Sejourne, an ally of Macron, echoed the French president's sentiments.
"Sylvie Goulard was very clearly the hostage of national and European political game-playing," he tweeted. "This shows that from the start, it was never about her competence. European politics shouldn't be written by resentment."
Parliament, which has been fragmented between pro and anti-EU groups since May elections, will vote on the Commission as a whole on Oct. 23 before it can take office.