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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 July 2018

Caught short: Le Pen’s party on the ropes after state seizes funding

France’s Rassemblement National needs to find 250,000 euro to pay obligations next month after government impounded 2 million euro in state funds

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen arrives to attend a silent march to honour Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old woman stabbed to death in her Paris apartment, in Paris, France, Wednesday, March 28, 2018. AP
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen arrives to attend a silent march to honour Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old woman stabbed to death in her Paris apartment, in Paris, France, Wednesday, March 28, 2018. AP

The French far-right leader Marine Le Pen says her anti-immigration and – as many claim – Islamophobic party faces extinction after 2 million euros (Dh8.6m) of state aid was blocked in a scandal over allegedly fictitious employees.

Ms Le Pen, soundly beaten by the centrist Emmanuel Macron in last year’s presidential election, has launched a survival fund in a bid to stave off bankruptcy for Rassemblement National (RN) or National Rally. So far the party says its public appeal has raised 100,000 euros.

She accuses the judges behind the order of “violating the presumption of innocence, without any court ruling, to assassinate France’s leading opposition party”.

As a result, she claims, RN – which changed its name from Front National in June in a latest attempt to soften its unsavoury image – could cease to exist at the end of August.

Behind the crisis is a long-running saga in which Ms Le Pen’s party stands accused of misusing more than 7 million euro of European funds over an eight-year period until last year. The 2 million euros were seized in order to repay the European Union money in the case of a guilty verdict against RN.

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The money was intended to meet the salaries of European parliamentary assistants. French prosecutors believe it was diverted instead to the party’s operations in France.

The French justice ministry defends the seizure of French funds, just under half of what the party was due to receive from the government this year, saying the judges acted lawfully “in strict respect for the penal procedural code as with any illegal conduct”, denying any conflict with the presumption of innocence. The judges reportedly justify their decision on the grounds of the party’s indebtedness.

Ms Le Pen has won unlikely support from some key figures in the conventional but electorally weakened parties of left and right.

Olivier Faure, first secretary of the Parti Socialist, said the existence of a political party should not be threatened by the authorities, though he warned Ms Le Pen against playing the victim and urged her to acknowledge fraud had occurred.

From the centre-right Les Republicains came less qualified sympathy. Julien Aubert, deputy general secretary, said he was taken aback by the decision. “We do not win the fight of ideas by physically preventing others from expressing themselves,” he tweeted.

French parties receive public funding based on their levels of support. The 2 million euros was blocked in France because that is where the criminal investigation is being carried out. Because of RN’s debts, the judges wanted to isolate a sum that may ultimately have to be repaid to the European parliament.

Ms Le Pen, her party and 12 others, including serving or past European MPs, her chief of staff and bodyguard, have been placed under formal criminal investigation into suspected breaches of trust. Prosecutors want to know how funds earmarked for the salaries of parliamentary assistants in Brussels came to be used to pay wages in France.

Ms Le Pen denies wrongdoing. Despite a range of continuing legal issues, her party remains France’s second most popular, though the electoral system condemns it to a minority presence in parliament. RN holds only seven seats out of 577 in a national assembly dominated by Mr Macron’s La Republique En Marche or LREM (Republic on the Move).

In a recent opinion poll, LREM led with a modest 23 per cent, Ms Le Pen’s party trailing by four points but still ahead of the socialist and conservative parties that previously enjoyed alternate periods in power.

She has devoted at least eight years to efforts to detoxify the image of a party often seen as racist, even fascist, since its creation by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 1972.

Her “de-demonisation” programme even led her to orchestrate her father’s expulsion in 2015 after he repeated his controversial belief that Nazi death camps were only a “detail” of the Second World War. Party officials have said the suspicion of anti-Semitism is the main obstacle to a major breakthrough.

Ms Le Pen, 50 next month, denies she is anti-Islam and describes the faith as “compatible” with French republican values. But she admits to having issues with its “visibility”, from what Muslim women wear to how Muslims pray.

Of the burqini swimwear favoured by Muslim women, she said: “it is not France, Brigitte Bardot is France”.

In June, when 10 people linked to an extreme far-right group were arrested on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks on French Muslims, Ms Le Pen felt obliged to warn against any suggestion of a link to her party. The implication – that some people would, however wrongly, make such a connection – explains why so many still see her party as a threat to democracy.

RN has had financial problems in the past, struggling to obtain French bank credit and forced to borrow, controversially, 9 million euro from a Russian bank and 6 million from a company owned by Mr Le Pen, even after his expulsion.

Squabbles and rivalries between the most prominent family members have become commonplace. Mr Le Pen was scathing about his daughter’s poor performance in a televised debate with Mr Macron days before her heavy defeat in the run-off.

He is said to have been much closer, emotionally and politically, to Ms Marechal-Le Pen, his granddaughter, but has also claimed there is little difference between his views and his daughter’s.

Ms Marechal-Le Pen was thought to be positioning herself as a contender for the party leadership but decided on a break from politics.

Whether the party can see out the summer or is simply crying wolf is yet to be seen, but the RN’s Wallerand de Saint-Just sounds concerned.

“She’s not overplaying it,” he told Paris-Match magazine and other media outlets, adding that he needs to find 250,000 euros just to pay July salaries and bills. “We really are on the edge of bankruptcy.”