Brussels investigators claim Le Pen paid her bodyguard, Thierry Légier, more than €41,500 (£35,350) between October and December 2011, by falsely claiming he was an EU parliamentary assistant. She is also accused of paying nearly €298,000 between December 2010 and 2016 to her France-based assistant Catherine Griset.
To qualify as a parliamentary assistant, the person needs to be physically working in one of the European parliament’s three offices in Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg and be resident near that workplace.
The European anti-fraud office (Olaf) has insisted Le Pen, 48, a frontrunner in France’s presidential campaign, repay the money, a total of €340,000. She has refused and is currently having it deducted from her MEP’s salary.
An FN statement claimed Monday’s raids were an attempt to “disturb the smooth running of the presidential campaign and to sink Marine Le Pen at the moment her campaign is making strides with voting intentions”.
French investigators opened a preliminary inquiry for fraud in December following Olaf’s claims and Monday’s raids on the FN officers were part of their search for evidence.
Her refusal to repay the money by the end of January deadline meant her MEP pay will be halved to around €3,000 from this month and most of her allowances and expenses frozen. In total she is expected to lose around €7,000 a month.
Le Pen said she refused to “submit to persecution”.
“I formally contest this unilateral and illegal decision taken by political opponents ... without proof and without waiting for a judgment from the court action I have started,” Le Pen told Reuters.
An opinion poll on Monday put Le Pen seven points clear of the centrist outsider Emmanuel Macron and his conservative rival François Fillon, who are tied on 20%, in the first round. But the Front National leader would lose to both Macron and Fillon in the May 7 run-off, the poll predicted, by margins of 16 and 12 points respectively.
Three other FN members of the European parliament, including Le Pen’s father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, have been ordered by the European court to reimburse around €600,000 of allegedly misused money.
Le Pen père has been told to repay €320,000 of salary and benefits, Bruno Gollnisch, a former academic convicted of Holocaust denial, €275,984, and MEP Mylène Troszczynski, €56,500. All three deny any wrongdoing and had challenged the reimbursement demand saying it would leave them unable to carry out their MEP duties. Last week, the court rejected their appeal and ruled the recovery of the money should go ahead.
Marine Le Pen is the second French presidential contender under investigation in “fake” jobs scandals. Centre right candidate François Fillon is facing accusations over claims he paid his British wife Penelope around €830,000 as a parliamentary assistant for more than a decade, and also paid his two eldest children Marie and Charles a total of €84,000 as assistants while he was a senator. French MPs and senators are allowed to employ family members, as long as the person is genuinely employed. Anti-fraud police are now looking into what, if anything, Penelope Fillon did.
After the Fillon scandal broke in January, Fillon said he would stand down if he was charged with an offence. However, last week, after the financial court refused to drop the case, Fillon appeared to backtrack on this pledge, saying he would continue to run and allow the “universal electorate” to decide.
Monday’s raids on the FN offices at Nanterre, just outside Paris, came as Le Pen was trying to raise her international profile with a two-day visit to Lebanon, where she reiterated her pro-Syria regime stance. Le Pen, who is running on an anti-immigration, anti-European platform said the only “viable and workable solution” to the Syrian civil war was the choice of either Bashar al-Assad or Islamic State.
“I clearly explained that in the political picture, the least bad option is the politically realistic one. It appears that Bashar al-Assad is evidently the most reassuring solution for France,” she said.
Associated Press reported that a summary of Le Pen’s meeting with the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, showed he had objected to what he saw as Le Pen’s stigmatisation of Muslims.
“Muslims are the first victims [of terrorism],” he was reported as saying adding that moderate Muslims were the “first bulwark against extremism”.
“The worst mistake would be the amalgam between Islam and Muslims on one hand and terrorism on the other,” he added, according to AP.
Le Pen was the second French presidential candidate to travel to Lebanon, following former Socialist minister Emmanuel Macron’s visit in January.
Author: Kim Willsher