Expenses probe: Move to lift Le Pen’s immunity

Paris: French prosecutors have asked the European parliament to lift the immunity of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen over an expenses scandal, deepening her legal woes on the eve of the election, legal sources said on Friday.
The move comes just nine days before France heads to the polls for a highly unpredictable vote with Le Pen, who heads the anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front (FN), one of the frontrunners in the April 23 first round.
The request was made at the end of last month after Le Pen, who is a member of the European Parliament (MEP), invoked her parliamentary immunity in refusing to attend questioning by investigating magistrates.
The prosecutors also made a similar request regarding another MEP from Le Pen’s party, Marie-Christine Boutonnet, who also avoided questioning. Le Pen, who has presented the investigation as a plot to derail her presidential bid, shrugged off the move, saying it was “normal”.
“It’s totally normal procedure, I’m not surprised,” she told France Info radio. Her lawyer Rodolphe Bosselut expressed astonishment, however, saying his client had expressed willingness to answer questions after the upcoming general elections in June, “depending on results of the presidential vote”.
If elected president — a scenario analysts deem unlikely but not impossible — Le Pen would have immunity from prosecution.
The investigation appears to have had little impact on her campaign, being dwarfed by the bigger scandal engulfing her conservative rival Francois Fillon.
Former prime minister Fillon was revealed in January to have given his wife a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant for which she was paid a total 680,000 euros ($725,000) from the public purse.
The affair, which culminated with the former “Mister Clean” of the right being formally charged last month, has thrown his campaign into turmoil but in the past few weeks he has climbed back into the race.
While polls still show Le Pen and centrist independent Emmanuel Macron leading the field on around 22-24 per cent each, Fillon and radical Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon are closing in on them, on around 18-20 per cent each.
A veteran leftist and eurosceptic famous for his mass rallies and fiery speeches, Melenchon has surged from behind on a platform of massive spending increases and a threat to pull out of key EU treaties.
The two leaders of the first round will go through to a decisive run-off on May 7.
Surveys show Le Pen would be beaten by any of the other three main contenders at the final hurdle but analysts have warned of a possible upset, after Britain’s shock vote to quit the EU and Donald Trump’s election in the US, both of which pollsters failed to predict.
The case against Le Pen was triggered by a complaint from the European Parliament, which accuses the FN of defrauding it to the tune of some 340,000 euros ($360,000).
The parliament believes the party used funds allotted for parliamentary assistants to pay FN staff for party work in France. In February, the assembly began withholding part of her pay to recover the money.
Le Pen, who has pledged to put France’s EU membership to a referendum if elected, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Investigators probing the allegations against the FN raided the party’s headquarters outside Paris last month.
Le Pen’s chief of staff Catherine Griset and Charles Hourcade, previously a graphic designer at FN headquarters, were charged with concealment. The two are among those suspected of being paid with parliamentary funds for work in France. — AFP