In the most unpredictable French presidential race in decades, marked by the fall from grace of Republican François Fillon due to allegations of misused parliamentary money, another piece of news slipped under the radar: hard-right Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has lost her parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
The European Parliament, where she is a French MEP, lifted her immunity after she tweeted pictures of Islamic State killings in response to a comparison between her far-right Front National (FN) party and the terrorist group. Although the tweets date back to 2015, Le Pen can only now be potentially prosecuted under a French law banning the distribution of violent images.
Although the loss of immunity only applies to this particular case, the French police also recently raided the headquarters of the Front National, as part of an official investigation into “fake jobs” – the same accusation that has scuppered Fillon’s presidential campaign.
In 2014, the European anti-fraud office (Olaf) opened an investigation into Le Pen and her parliamentary assistants. Her bodyguard Thierry Légier and Catherine Griset, her chief of staff at the FN in Paris, were both listed as her assistants at the European Parliament, a position for which it is mandatory to be a resident of Strasbourg or Brussels. (No proof of address could be found.) A parliamentary assistant to a different FN MEP has also been placed under investigation last week.
A former FN advisor, hired to work on Marine Le Pen’s 2011 presidential campaign, has recently denounced a “generalised system of corruption” within the party. “There is a deep problem, a problem about parliamentary assistants, a problem every person who has been close enough has touched,” he said.
In 2015, as many as 20 parliamentary assistants to FN MEPs were listed in the party’s organisation chart. This prompted the then-President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz to take the case to the Olaf. He declared at the time: “One cannot be paid by the European Parliament and work for a party.” The Olaf report, published last July, concluded that “the facts in question could be constitutive of penal offense, indeed of fraud, forgery and the use of false documents” by French penal law. The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation following these allegations in December, resulting in the headquarter raid and a judicial summoning.
But unlike Fillon, who has agreed to meet the police and judges in his own “fake” jobs allegations, Marine Le Pen has repeatedly declined to cooperate with the investigations. She has accused Schulz of pursuing “persecution for political ends”.
When the Olaf has asked her to pay back the estimated €340,000 misused funds by January, she refused to comply. Her MEP salary has been halved from February and most of her parliamentary rights have been frozen since.
She has also declined to attend judicial a summons. She declared that she wouldn’t go before the end of the campaign – after which, if she wins, she will gain presidential immunity.
Marine Le Pen may be avoiding police and judges, but she has been vocal about the “establishment” she believes is “working against her.” At a rally, she declared: “By all means, the establishment is trying to control the outcome of this election.” She is suing Olaf and senior EU officials. The FN has also set up a “fake news alert” to comment on news regarding her and her campaign.
Despite the serious accusations Le Pen is facing, none of them seem to have any effect on her ratings as far as the presidential election is concerned.
For the first time, polls have put Macron ahead of Le Pen in the first round, with 26 per cent of the vote to Le Pen’s 25 per cent (she had been consistently leading until now). However, this poll is more of a symbolic setback than a major change.
The French voters who declare they will support Le Pen show high certainty in their choice. Macron’s supporters are less sure. His victory will depend on the Republicans’ woes (Fillon’s scandal and its consequences) and the Socialists’ divide (Benoit Hamon is struggling to convince his party). If Fillon is replaced by a shinier last-minute candidate, or if Hamon manages a breakthrough, Macron’s ratings will suffer.
Le Pen’s will not. Her voters distrust the media just as much as they distrust politicians, and her strategy of pointing back the blame on the “establishment” resonates with them. Her biggest challenge lies with the voters she is less to convince, as polls put her losing in the run-up against either Fillon or Macron.
As for the FN faithful, they may be ready to forgive tweets exposing Isis crimes, but if the “fake jobs” scandal continues to balloon, they may be forced to confront some uncomfortable truths. Namely, if Fillon and Le Pen have something in common, how much of an anti-establishment candidate really is she?