By Marine Strauss, Robin Emmott and Michel Rose
BRUSSELS/PARIS (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 ($11,000) 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."
In a sign the rejection could complicate Macron's relationship with the new EU executive, he said he was baffled because he had been assured by incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that lawmakers would approve Goulard.
"President Von der Leyen told me: 'I want to work with Sylvie Goulard. I know her'," said Macron, adding that she had made calls to all parliament party heads. "She then called me back and said: 'We're good, they're fine with Mrs Goulard."
TOUGH TASK FOR NEW EU CHIEF
The rejection also complicates the task of 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.
Following Goulard's rejection, president-elect von der Leyen called for European unity of purpose towards a "common objective" of forming a new Commission.
"We must not lose sight of what is at stake: the next five years will be decisive for Europe in a difficult global environment," she said in a statement after meeting leaders of key lawmaker groups. "It is now necessary ... to speed up the process so that Europe can act swiftly."
GOULARD CAUGHT IN JOBS FURORE
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.
Macron's allies echoed the French president's sentiments.
"It was a co-ordinated, pre-planned attack by Europe's conservative right, which can't accept the new political landscape," said Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade, a lawmaker in Macron's party.
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.
(Reporting by Marine Strauss and Robin Emmott in Brussels, and Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Foo Yun Chee and Pravin Char)