Marine Le Pen should stand trial for allegedly giving party members fake jobs as assistants in the European Parliament, Paris prosecutors have announced, in a blow to the National Rally (RN) leader’s French presidential ambitions.
The prosecutors’ call comes after a seven-year-long probe into whether the then National Front (FN), used money earmarked for EU parliamentary assistants to pay staff who were working for the party and is the clearest indication yet that the case will go to court.
Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, and 25 others should also stand trial, prosecutors said.
The European Parliament estimated that €6.8 million (£5.9 million) in EU funds allegedly went to FN assistants who were not working for MEPs, but doing party work in France between 2009 and 2017.
The hard-Right party denies the charges and has always said it can prove it did not embezzle cash.
Members of the European Parliament are allocated funds – around €21,000 (£18,000) per month – to cover expenses, including their assistants, but are not meant to use them for party expenses.
The prosecutor’s office said some 49 assistants’ situations had been examined over a period of time spanning three EU parliament terms of office, from 2004 to 2016.
Among those potentially facing trial are 11 MEPs elected on FN (now RN) lists, another 12 who served as parliamentary assistants and four other hard-Right figures.
The highest-profile names are Ms Le Pen, 55, and her father, Jean-Marie, 95, the party’s co-founder who she ousted as leader in 2011.
Other known figures are Louis Aliot, mayor of Perpignan, southwestern France, Bruno Gollnisch, the former party number two and Nicolas Bay, its ex-administration chief – now deputy leader of polemicist Eric Zemmour’s anti-immigration and anti-Islam Reconquest! party. Wallerand de Saint-Just, former party treasurer and Julien Odoul, RN party spokesman and a French MP, are also on the list.
The probe was launched in 2016 in the wake of a report from the European parliament, which had noticed some assistants were holding high-ranking positions within Le Pen’s party that seemed irreconcilable with their full-time parliamentary job.
Ms Le Pen dismissed the development, telling Le Monde that other French political groups, including the centrist MoDem and Leftist France Unbowed parties, faced similar investigations.
“We dispute this position which seems to be an erroneous understanding of the work of opposition lawmakers and their assistants, which is above all a political one,” it cited her as saying.
Mr Aliot suggested that the timing of the prosecutor’s statement was political, telling AFP that it was released “as luck would have it in an electoral year where RN is in the lead”.
Ms Le Pen faced Emmanuel Macron twice in the second round of France’s presidential elections, in 2017 and 2022, and is widely seen as a frontrunner in the next one in 2027.
‘Natural candidate for presidency’
Last week, she announced that she was her party’s “natural candidate” for another crack at the presidency.
Commentators interpreted her announcement as an attempt to position herself at a time when she is riding high in the polls – several suggest she would beat Mr Macron, who cannot run for a third term, if an election took place now. They also said it could be seen as an attempt to silence supporters of her ambitious 28-year-old protégé Jordan Bardella, who is running the party’s 2024 European election campaign and whom some would like to see replace Ms Le Pen.
“Jordan would make a very good prime minister,” she said in an interview last weekend.
Party sources insist there is no rivalry and the pair have a clear strategy whereby Ms Le Pen appeals to the working classes while Mr Bardella seeks to woo the hard-Right middle classes and poach voters disillusioned with the conservative Republicans party.
Ms Le Pen faces a potential 10-year jail sentence, a million-euro fine, and – as she is an elected official – ineligibility to hold public office for 10 years, the prosecutor’s office said.
Judges will have to decide whether or not to accept the prosecutor’s office petition for trial.
‘Neither accidental nor occasional’
In arguments seen by AFP, prosecutors said Ms Le Pen should stand trial for “embezzling public funds” as their alleged misuse appeared “neither accidental nor occasional”.
On the contrary, the party had created a “veritable system… to help support, via the European Parliament, a part of the FN’s running costs by using the salaries of a growing number of its employees”.
It cites a 2014 letter from Mr Saint Juste, the ex-treasurer, to Ms Le Pen in which he said that “in the coming years and come what may, we won’t get by unless we make significant savings thanks to the European Parliament…”
Prosecutors single out Ms Le Pen, saying that from 2014 to 2019 – the heart of the dossier – she “obliged newly elected FN Euro MPs to place at her disposal a part of their budgetary envelope to pay fellow party members to relieve FN finances”.
Patrick Maisonneuve, a lawyer for the European Parliament, a civil plaintiff, said it “took note of the prosecutor’s position, which the parliament totally shares”.