EXPLAINED: Le Pen, the French elections and an EU embezzlement scandal

French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen, her father and a number of former colleagues have been accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of euros in public money during their time as MEPs, French investigative journalism side Mediapart reports.

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen on the campaign trail.
French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen on the campaign trail. (Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

What are the allegations?

The EU’s anti-Fraud office sent a 116-page report to the French courts implicating Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen, three other MEPs – her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, Louis Aliot and Bruno Gollnisch – as well as the far-right parliamentary group Europe des nations et Liberties (ENL) of embezzling more than €615,000 in public money.

The report said that Le Pen herself should repay nearly €137,000 it said she ‘misappropriated’ during her time as an MEP.

The gist of the allegations is that Le Pen and her party spent EU money on domestic campaigning in France.  

Are these new claims?

No. It’s just the first we’ve heard about them. The investigation was opened in 2016 and Le Pen answered an official questionnaire in March last year, her lawyer Rodolphe Bosselut told AFP.

They relate to her time as an MEP – since 2017 she has been an MP in the French parliament.

Wasn’t she already involved in an EU expenses scandal?

That was a different case.

Le Pen was implicated in an investigation over suspicions of employing fictional party assistants in the European Parliament, and ordered to pay back about €339,000 – of which she had some €24,000 held back from her MEP salary. The remainder, Mediapart says, remains unpaid.

This new sum – of which she is accused of being personally liable for nearly €137,000 – is on top of that.

The European Parliament has already recovered nearly €800,000 from Gollnisch and Jean-Marie Le Pen in connection with the fictional assistants scandal. The founder of the FN had nearly €300,000 seized from his salary and then from his pension.

So, what does the investigation say?

The report is unequivocal, Mediapart reports. It says the evidence is sufficient “to give rise to criminal proceedings against the former members of parliament […] for the fraudulent acts they committed to the detriment of the Union’s budget.” 

Fraud, forgery, breach of trust, misappropriation of public funds for national or personal political purposes, over-invoicing, and even fictitious services for the benefit of companies often gravitating around various far-right groups associated with the Front National (FN, the RN’s predecessor), as well as “conflicts of interest”, were all mentioned.

Any specifics?

According to the report, more than €23,000 of promotional merchandise was billed to the Parliament in 2014 but was intended to be distributed to the then Front National’s congress in Lyon. 

Le Pen and her father each billed the European Parliament €5,000 for the creation of official EU websites that never appeared.

And, the report alleges that – according to a whistleblower – Le Pen charged €5,000 for hotel and travel expenses of 13 members of her entourage during a symposium on European regions in 2010, but used the meeting to prepare for the party’s presidential elections. 

What does Le Pen say?

“So the dirty tricks of the European Union, a few days before the second round. I am very used to that and I think that the French are absolutely not fooled,” she said while on a campaign trip to Normandy.

“I obviously absolutely contest these accusations, of which I was not aware, which already poses a problem in terms of the rule of law, of which I have not been provided with any proof, any element, despite the requests that I amde” added the candidate of the National Rally – apparently contradicting her own lawyer, who had said she had responded to questions last year.

It’s the same theme from her entourage, too. “The French people will not be fooled by the attempts of the European Union and the European institutions” to “interfere in the presidential campaign and harm Marine Le Pen,” RN president Jordan Bardella told Le Grand Rendez-Vous on Europe 1 and CNews, on Sunday, April 17th. 

“A crooked move, lies, and verbal violence. I think the Macron team is so nervous that they are ready for anything. The EU is coming to the rescue of its little soldier,” RN spokesman Laurent Jacobelli responded on RMC.

What happens now?

The European Parliament now intends to “proceed for the recovery of the sums unduly paid”, AFP reported one official as saying. 

Why does this matter?

The European Parliament’s efforts to reclaim the funds is likely to take time, but the allegations may have an impact on the French presidential race.

Allegations of impropriety are – as they should be – a serious matter for politicians, and the timing, days before the second round of France’s presidential election could scarcely be worse for their candidate at the start of a crucial week – hence the ‘conspiracy’ attack line from RN high-ups. 

Set against that, Le Pen has long been hostile to the EU (although, like many other anti-EU politicians that has not stopped her taking large amounts of money from the institution) so her core vote may not be particularly upset at the though of the EU losing money to her. 

Polls suggest Emmanuel Macron holds a crucial lead heading into the final days of campaigning, but this election race has been much closer than supporters would be comfortable with, especially as their candidate has been distracted by issues other than campaigning. 

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French police clear Channel migrant camps after violence leaves one dead

Police dismantled a camp housing hundreds of migrants near Dunkirk in northern France on Wednesday after one person was killed and three wounded in suspected score-settling between smugglers, authorities said.

French police clear Channel migrant camps after violence leaves one dead

Around 500 people, mainly Iraqi Kurds, had been living at the wooded site in Loon-Plage, near a canal that often serves as a key launching point for boats hoping to cross the English Channel for Britain.

Buses stood by to bring the migrants to shelters, but most left instead on foot, carrying what belongings they could.

On Monday night, one migrant was shot and killed and another wounded by what volunteer aid workers described as machine gun fire, the day after two others were also shot and wounded, one seriously.

Ammunition from “weapons of war” were found, Dunkirk’s state prosecutor Sebastian Pieve had told AFP on Tuesday, and a clash between rival smuggling groups was “a theory, but it’s not easy to establish”.

“But it’s certain that human trafficking is the backdrop to this,” he said.

Dawan, a 32-year-old Kurd, would say only “mafia, mafia” when asked by AFP about the shootings.

He said he had recently paid €1,600 to a smuggler who said he would get him to England after spending five months in France, but the man disappeared the next day.

Claire Millot of the Salam migrant aid group said most volunteer associations had quit operating at Loon-Plage out of security fears, adding that Africans and other nationalities had recently been seen in an area usually occupied mainly by Kurds.

More than 7,000 migrants have managed to cross the busy shipping lane and reach the British coast since January, after the number of arrivals tripled to over 28,000 last year — which saw at least 30 migrants die while trying.