French football president Le Graet under investigation for sexual harassment

The president of the French Football Federation, Noel Le Graet, has been placed under investigation for sexual and psychological harassment, prosecutors told AFP on Tuesday.

The probe was opened on Monday after football agent Sonia Souid made accusations against Le Graet in an affair that has shaken French football just weeks after France were beaten by Argentina in the World Cup final.

"He very clearly said to me in his apartment that if I wanted him to help me, I had to let him have his way with me," said Souid, who gave interviews to sports daily L'Equipe and radio station RMC.

Le Graet, who has been president of the FFF since 2011 but was forced to step down last week pending the outcome of an audit of the federation performed by France's Sports Ministry, has denied any wrongdoing.

In a statement sent to AFP by his lawyers, Le Graet said he "denies all accusations of psychological or sexual harassment or any other criminal offence".

Despite stepping aside last week, the 81-year-old is still officially recognised as president by world governing body FIFA.

He had faced calls to resign, including from Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera, after what he admitted were "clumsy remarks" about Zinedine Zidane's potential interest in coaching the French national team.

Le Graet said in an interview with RMC that he "wouldn't even have taken his call" when asked whether Zidane, a World Cup winner as a player and an all-time France great, had rung him to express an interest in taking over as coach from Didier Deschamps.

Deschamps, who led France to World Cup glory in 2018 and oversaw their run to last month's final, recently signed a new contract to stay as coach until 2026.

- 'defend himself' -

Le Graet, whose mandate runs until 2024, has been replaced on an interim basis by Philippe Diallo, a vice-president of the organisation.

Newspaper Le Monde first revealed at the weekend that Le Graet had been reported to prosecutors by officials carrying out the audit of the Paris-based body after a claim of "sexist insults" was made against him.

Le Graet's lawyers told AFP he was shocked to discover through the media that an investigation had been opened and complained about the "numerous interventions and political pressure" from Oudea-Castera.

"Mr Le Graet has not had the chance to read about the elements of the investigation that concern him, or to defend himself," the statement added.

Oudea-Castera tweeted in support of Souid after her revelations came out. "Well done for being so brave. Our audit will do you justice," the Sports Minister wrote.

The affair casts a shadow over French football so soon after they lost on penalties to Argentina in an epic final in Qatar.

Seeking to become the first team since Brazil 60 years ago to successfully defend the World Cup, France came from two goals down to draw the final 3-3 with Kylian Mbappe scoring a hat-trick, before losing in the shoot-out.

The French men's team return to action at the end of March when the qualifying campaign for Euro 2024 begins.

The French women's team, ranked fifth in the world, have qualified for this year's World Cup, which takes place in Australia and New Zealand in July and August.

jpa/gj-as/pi