The French far right party now known as the National Rally has edged closer to power under Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron’s opponent in the second round of the last two presidential elections. As like-minded parties make progress in several other European elections, her chances of making a breakthrough when Macron completes his time in office have appeared to be increasing. But could criminal charges in France end Le Pen’s dream of power? – asks Political Editor Nick Powell.
The French Presidential election system, with a run-off between the two leading candidates, might have been designed to stop Marine Le Pen, as it did her father before her. It enables the mainstream parties to sink their differences and in an act of ‘republican solidarity’ prevent the victory of a candidate they see as a challenger to the democratic norms of the Fifth Republic.
It’s worked until now but there’s always the danger of reaching a tipping-point, where the far-right’s electoral base has grown to an extent that the National Rally is seen as part of the political mainstream, so that voters with more moderate views see its presidential candidate as a legitimate second round choice. Arguably we are now at that tipping point, with Marine Le Pen’s party the main opposition in the National Assembly and set to send a bigger delegation of MEPs to the European Parliament after next year’s election.
European Parliament elections have often proved to be happy hunting grounds for far-right parties. The EU is an obvious target for their nativist and protectionist arguments and of course their favourite issue of immigration goes to the heart of the European project. The main reason for far-right success in European Elections is however more banal, the election is seen as second-order by most citizens, many of them do not vote and those who do feel free to make a protest via the ballot box and so take a punt on a more extreme candidate.
Yet the European Parliament could turn out to be where it all went disastrously wrong for Marine Le Pen. The Paris prosecutor’s office says she and 23 other members of her party should stand trial over alleged misuse of EU funds. It’s taken seven years to get to this point after an investigation began in December 2016 into whether what was then called the National Front had used money meant to pay for MEPs’ assistants had instead funded the employment of working for the party.
Marine Le Pen left the European Parliament a year later, in 2017, but she has been caught in the net. The investigation began after a parliamentary report noted that some National Front MEPs’ assistants also held important positions in party. That seemed to give the game away, a certain blurring of the lines between parliamentary and party political work is not uncommon and arguably unavoidable, but Le Pen’s party were possibly a bit too blatant.
That would have been especially foolish and far-right parties often claim that the traditionally dominant political groups are out to get them -and they’re probably right about that. In this case the National Rally denies any wrongdoing. “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 said in a statement.
Marine Le Pen faces a possible 10-year prison sentence, a €1 million fine and crucially disqualification from public office for 10 years, potentially ending her political career. Whether she actually ends up in court depends on the judges who will have to decide whether to accept the prosecutor’s petition for a trial.
The case covers the period from 2004 to 2016, involves 11 people who served as MEPs, including Le Pen and her 95-year-old father, the party’s former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, as well as 12 parliamentary assistants and four other party activists. The National Rally itself faces charges of concealing wrongdoing. During the investigation, Le Pen said the allegations amounted to political “persecution” against her.
Her lawyer says she has agreed to pay back European Parliament funds, after anti-fraud office, OLAF, calculated that she owed €339,000. At first, she had refused to repay the money and the parliament deducted some of it from her salary before she ceased to be an MEP. Almost €330,000 was returned in July but without accepting the validity of the demand for reimbursement.
The current case is separate from OLAF’s claim that Le Pen and three of her parliamentary colleagues used €600,000 claimed as expenses to fund their party. Again, Le Pen denies the allegations. If a criminal conviction does end a career that she still hopes will culminate in her becoming Head of State, it will be a peculiar and somewhat unsatisfactory end to her ambitions.
But for those who seen Marine Le Pen and her party as an existential threat to French and European democracy, it would still be a moment to celebrate. After all, the American gangster Al Capone was only taken out of circulation after the FBI successfully prosecuted him for tax evasion.