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POLITICS

‘Combative’ Le Pen re-elected as head of France’s far-right

Marine Le Pen won re-election as head of France's far-right National Rally Sunday at a party congress, where she is seeking new impetus for her 2022 presidential bid after performing badly in regional polls.

'Combative' Le Pen re-elected as head of France's far-right
Marine Le Pen stands on stage during a congress of the party in Perpignan on July 4ht. credit: VALENTINE CHAPUIS / AFP

The National Rally (RN), which had been tipped for strong gains in last month’s regional elections, was left floundering after failing to win any of the 13 regions in mainland France.

The results raised questions about Le Pen’s strategy of trying to detoxify her party’s brand and position it as a more mainstream right-wing force.

But she faced no challenge for the party leadership, with her quest for a fourth term winning the backing of 98.35 percent of members in an online and postal ballot, RN announced on the second day of its congress in the southern city of Perpignan.

Addressing reporters, the 52-year-old trained lawyer said she felt “extremely combative” about her chances of winning the presidency on her third attempt.

“I have no doubts about what needs to be done for France,” said Le Pen, who will use a keynote address later Sunday to rally party faithful for the 2022 campaign.

Polls show the election coming down to another duel between Le Pen and centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who defeated the anti-immigration candidate handily in the second round of the 2017 vote.

But that scenario is no longer seen as a foregone conclusion.

Macron is also seen as being weakened by the poor performance of his Republic on the Move (LREM) party in the regional election.

LREM, which was founded in 2016, finished last of the big parties, winning just 7 percent of second-round votes in a contest characterised by record low turnout.

‘Virility’ call

Both Le Pen’s and Macron’s parties have downplayed the significance of the regional elections, saying they are a poor predictor of the presidential vote.

The big winners were the traditional parties of the right and left, the Republicans and the Socialists, which were quashed by Macron’s centrist insurgency in 2017 but appear to be regaining ground.

National Rally leaders have rejected suggestions that Le Pen’s strategy of toning down the party’s once strident rhetoric against immigration and the EU have cost it support.

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It was Marine Le Pen’s unabashedly extremist father Jean-Marie who sent shockwaves through France in 2002 when he beat a Socialist to land a spot in the run-off of the presidential election against the ultimately victorious Jacques Chirac.

Jean-Marie Le Pen was thrown out of the National Front (since renamed the National Rally) in 2015 after a series of anti-Semitic remarks and has loudly complained about its so-called “de-LePenisation”.

In a recent blog post he warned that  the RN needed to re-discover its “virility” and refocus on immigration and crime in order to mobilise its base.

In a sign that the party is nonetheless behind Marine Le Pen’s strategy of trying to soften the party’s image, one of her proteges, Jordan Bardella, was chosen on Sunday to stand in for her as party leader during her presidential campaign.

The media-savvy 25-year-old, who flopped in the regional elections in the greater Paris region, is currently the RN’s deputy leader.

Resurgent right

Recent opinion polls have made unhappy reading for Le Pen, showing that Macron would lead her in the first round of presidential voting and then easily win the run-off.

The latest survey by polling firm Elabe for BFMTV said that Macron would pick up 29-31 percent in the first round, compared with 23-25 percent for Le Pen, with the incumbent then winning the second round on 60 percent.

The emergence of a strong candidate on the traditional right could however cause an upset, both for Macron and Le Pen.

Former minister Xavier Bertrand, who won reelection as head of the northern Hauts-de-France region last month, has already announced plans to run for president.

But he faces several challengers for the support of mainstream conservatives.

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CRIME

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

A French court on Thursday found former justice minister Michel Mercier guilty of embezzlement in a fake jobs scheme he ran for the benefit of family members.

French ex-minister convicted in fake jobs scam

Mercier, 75, who served under former president Nicolas Sarkozy between 2010 and 2012, claimed tens of thousands of euros for his wife and daughter for parliamentary jobs  they never carried out.

The court handed him a suspended prison sentence of three years.

Mercier gave “personal gain precedence over the public good”, the court said in its verdict, calling Mercier’s actions “serious”.

As senator, Mercier claimed 50,000 euros ($54,000 at today’s rate) in salary for his wife Joelle between 2005 and 2009, and  €37,000 for his daughter Delphine between 2012 and 2014.

During that time, Delphine Mercier was living in London and did not set foot in the French Senate, but her father claimed she was acting as his “cultural advisor”.

Neither Mercier nor his daughter were able to provide any proof of actual work done.

Joelle Mercier, meanwhile, claimed during the trial that she had served as her husband’s representative at village fairs and funerals.

She was found guilty of conspiracy to embezzle public funds and of receiving stolen money and sentenced to a suspended prison term of 18 months and a €40,000 fine.

The court handed the daughter a 12-month suspended sentence and a fine of €10,000.

Prosecutors had asked for the ex-minister to serve one year behind bars, accusing him of “creating smoke screens” in his defence and seeking to mislead the court.

Mercier had based part of his defence on his rural roots, pitting his “common sense” against the “Parisians” of the national financial crimes unit PNF.

Several French politicians have been convicted for similar offences committed before France in 2017 banned National Assembly deputies and senators from employing family members.

The move came in reaction to a public outcry over a high-profile case involving former right-wing prime minister Francois Fillon, who was found guilty of providing a fake parliamentary assistant job to his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds.

The “Penelopegate” scandal, revealed in a media report while he was the front-runner in the 2017 presidential race, torpedoed  his political career and cleared a path for then-relatively unknown Emmanuel Macron.

Last year, a court trimmed Fillon’s sentence to four years in prison with three suspended — down from five years with three suspended when he was first found guilty in 2020.

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