French finance minister admits acting 'inappropriately' towards female reporter

Paris - French Finance Minister Michel Sapin has admitted acting "inappropriately" towards a female journalist after twice denying any improper conduct with her, adding to a sexual harassment scandal in French politics.

Sapin acknowledged late Tuesday "making a comment" while placing his hand on the woman's back at a conference early last year - following two previous denials of a claim that he had tweaked her knicker elastic.

Sapin's admission came on the heels of a scandal that broke on Monday when eight women accused a deputy parliamentary speaker, Denis Baupin, of sexually harassing them over a number of years.

Prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into the claims made by colleagues of Baupin in the ecologist EELV party.

Sapin said in a statement to AFP: "During a visit in January 2015 to Davos, in the middle of 20 people, I made a comment to a female journalist about her clothing while placing my hand on her back.

"There was no sexist or aggressive intent in my action, but the simple fact that I shocked the person in question shows that these words and actions were inappropriate, and I was and remain sorry." Sapin said he had immediately apologised to the journalist in question.

"In the minutes that followed (the incident), the journalist asked to see me face-to-face to tell me of her outrage. Of course, I apologised sincerely to her," he said.

Yet when pressed about the incident a few hours earlier, Sapin had told a very different story.

"We are in a place of absolute libel... These are allegations that are totally false," he had told reporters.

The allegations first surfaced in April, when two other reporters published a book about the corridors of power titled "Elysee Off".

The authors, Stephanie Marteau and Aziz Zemouri, claim the unnamed journalist in Davos was bending over to pick up a pen when Sapin said: "Ah, but what are you showing me here?" and snapped the elastic of her unintentionally exposed panties.

The alleged incident had been previously reported - without giving the minister's name - as part of a 2015 petition in the Liberation newspaper signed by dozens of female journalists denouncing sexism from male politicians, titled "Get your paws off me!" According to the authors of the book, Sapin's office brushed off the incident at the time, saying it had been "a schoolyard prank" and that the journalist had "flown off the handle".

When the book was published in April, Sapin's spokeswoman described the claims as "false and slanderous".

But the uproar over the allegations against Baupin prompted renewed pressure for Sapin to come clean about the incident.

Sapin described the allegations against Baupin as "appalling" but said it was up to the judiciary to establish the facts.

Baupin, 53, has vigorously denied the claims and on Tuesday instructed his lawyers to sue two French media outlets for defamation, calling the allegations "mendacious".

His wife, Housing Minister Emmanuelle Cosse, said she was shocked by the allegations against her husband but that she still had faith in him.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls urged investigators probing the Baupin case to "shed full light on whatever took place".

Valls also told French radio: "When a woman says no, it means no." A number of French male politicians have been accused of sexual harassment in recent years.

The highest profile case involved Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he headed the International Monetary Fund and was touted as a possible future French president.

He faced accusations that he sexually assaulted a hotel maid in New York in 2011. The charges were eventually dropped and the case was settled in a civil suit.