French prosecutors are probing the far-right National Front (FN) for suspected fraud linked to payments for aides at the European Parliament, judicial sources said yesterday (5 December), as the party struggles to find all-important funding.
Party leader Marine Le Pen, a leading candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, ran into problems last October when the European Parliament called on her to reimburse €339,900.
She is suspected of violating the institution’s rules by having two assistants carry out non-parliamentary work while their wages were paid by the EU assembly over the 2010-2016 period.
A similar case concerns her estranged 88-year-old father Jean-Marie, who like her is a member of the Parliament.
The EU is claiming that Le Pen Snr should repay €320,000 paid to his parliamentary assistant for the 2009-2014 period.
Judicial sources said French prosecutors opened an investigation on 15 December after carrying out a preliminary inquiry launched in March 2015 at the request of the Parliament, which had raised suspicions over payments to a total of 20 assistants working for National Front MEPs.
The investigation has been entrusted to examining magistrates specialising in financial crime for suspected breach of trust and concealment, organised fraud, use of fraudulent documents and undeclared labour, they said.
The probe will take place in the run-up to the French presidential elections, with the first round of the vote due on 23 April.
If no candidate wins an absolute majority, a run-off between the top two will be held on 7 May. Opinion polls suggest François Fillon of the conservative Republicans party would face Le Pen in the run-off.
Le Pen reacted angrily to the fraud probe on Thursday, portraying herself as a victim of political manipulation.
“Occurring in the middle of the election campaign… it is a clear sign of a purely political agenda. The age-old methods of politicking, of persecuting opponents, do not die away,” Le Pen told AFP.
The FN is hoping that last year’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s shock election victory will give it a historic boost for the presidential vote and parliamentary elections which follow in June.
The party was founded by the elder Le Pen but, in the eyes of many voters, he also tarred it with anti-Semitism and racism.
His daughter, 48, has sought to pare away the negative image and broaden the party’s appeal with a manifesto promoting nationalism, Euroscepticism and law and order.
However, in recent days, Le Pen has backtracked on her vehemently anti-EU stance and said that she would not want to see France leave the bloc straight away if she were to gain power. In an interview with French TV, she said that she would prefer to see France renegotiate its standing in Brussels and remain in the single currency.
Political commentators say Le Pen has little chance of winning the presidency, as electors are less likely to cast protest votes in a run-off.
A new opinion poll published by survey group Elabe on Thursday gives Fillon a lead of between one and four points over Le Pen in first-round voting intentions but that lead depends on who the now-governing Socialist Party puts forward as its own candidate.
In a further blow, the party is struggling to raise millions of euros it needs to fund its presidential campaign but Le Pen vowed: “We will find one bank somewhere in the world that is willing to lend us that money.”
She accused French banks of playing politics by refusing to lend money to her party, suggesting it was being marginalised because of its far-right policies.
The FN said in December it needed to raise €27 million euros to fund its campaigning. It has borrowed about €6 million from a political fundraising association headed by Le Pen Snr.
“We have additional funding to find. We’ll find it,” his daughter told reporters on Wednesday (4 December). “It’s half (of what we need), but we’ll find it,” she said, without specifying how much of the €27 million.
“We’ll end up finding it. We will find one bank somewhere in the world that is willing to lend us that money,” she insisted.
Separately, Russia has started legal proceedings to recover a €9 million loan from the FN after the Moscow-based bank from which the party borrowed the money in 2014 had its operating licence revoked because it held insufficient capital. The impact this will have on the party’s finances is unclear.
Asked by journalists if her party was knocking on Russian banks’ doors again to ease its funding squeeze, Le Pen said: “I’m looking everywhere, including in the United States, including in Britain, absolutely everywhere.”