Fri Apr 14, 2017 04:00PM
French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen speaks during a conference on the theme "France faced with the challenge of terrorism" in Paris on April 10, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen speaks during a conference on the theme "France faced with the challenge of terrorism" in Paris on April 10, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

French prosecutors have asked the European Parliament to lift the immunity of the far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen over an expenses scandal, deepening her legal woes on the eve of the election.

The move comes just nine days before France heads to the polls for a highly unpredictable vote, with Le Pen – who heads the Eurosceptic Front National (FN) – one of the front-runners in the 23 April first round.

The request was made at the end of last month after Le Pen, who is a member of the European Parliament, 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 denied misusing parliamentary funds, shrugged off the move. “It’s totally normal procedure, I’m not surprised,” she told France Info radio.

The case was triggered by a complaint from the European Parliament, which accuses the FN of defrauding it to the tune of about €340,000 (£290,000).

The parliament believes the party used funds allotted for parliamentary assistants to pay FN staff for party work in France. In February, it said it would start docking Le Pen’s pay unless she paid the money back.

The allegations appear to have had little impact on Le Pen’s campaign, dwarfed by the bigger scandal engulfing her conservative rival Francois Fillon.  

Fillon was revealed in January to have given his wife an allegedly fake job as a parliamentary assistant, for which she was paid a total €680,000 (£577,000).

The affair, which culminated with him being formally charged last month, has thrown his campaign into turmoil, but the former prime minister has managed to climb back into the race in the past few weeks.

Polls still show Le Pen and the centrist independent Emmanuel Macron leading the field on around 22-24% each, but their support is slipping, allowing the radical Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and Fillon to narrow the gap with 18-20% each.

A picture taken on April 10, 2017 in Strasbourg, eastern France shows campaign posters of the 11 candidates for the French presidential election. (Photo by AFP)

The two first round leaders will go through a decisive run-off on May 7.

Surveys show Le Pen would be beaten by any of the other three main contenders at this point, 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.

Investigators looking into the allegations against the FN raided the party’s headquarters outside Paris in February.

They questioned Le Pen’s chief of staff, Catherine Griset, at length before charging her with concealment. The European Parliament says Griset was among the employees paid from funds for work in France.

Charles Hourcade, a former assistant to Boutonnet who once worked as a graphic designer at the FN’s headquarters, was also charged. Le Pen’s bodyguard, Thierry Legier, was questioned but not charged.

Le Pen has already had her parliamentary immunity lifted over a separate affair dating back to 2015, when she shared graphic pictures of Daesh atrocities on Twitter. Those pictures saw her placed under investigation for “dissemination of violent images”.

(Source: AFP)