French police were searching the headquarters of Marine Le Pen‘s National Front party west of Paris on Monday in relation to a probe into alleged misuse of European Union funds to pay parliamentary assistants, an FN official told Reuters.
The European parliament has said that, in her role as French National Front leader, Le Pen had during the 2011-12 legislature paid party staff with EU funds, which EU rules say should be used only to pay EU lawmakers’ assistants.
The search at the far-Right party’s headquarters in Nanterre, west of Paris, was confirmed by FN officials, who said it was the second time the offices had been raided.
They accused the French judiciary of conducting a political smear campaign.
“It looks on the face of it like a media operation whose goal is to disturb the course of the presidential campaign and to seek to harm Marine Le Pen at a time when her candidacy is making an important surge in voter intentions,” the FN said in a statement.
A French probe into “abuse of trust” and concealment, as well as “embezzlement in an organised gang”, as well as fraud and concealed work was opened on December 15 following a complaint by the EU parliament.
Last Friday, Ms Le Pen furiously rejected reports that she had admitted to giving her bodyguard a fake job as EU parliamentary aide.
“It’s a bare-faced lie. I never admitted to anything of the sort,” Ms Le Pen told France Bleu radio, saying she had never even met EU investigators to discuss the matter.
Two French news outlets last week published extracts from a report by the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF claiming that Ms Le Pen admitted to illegally paying her bodyguard Thierry Legier with EU funds.
The parliament says it paid out €41,554 towards a three-month contract for Mr Legier in 2011 in which they claim he was falsely presented as a parliamentary assistant.
The OLAF report said that Ms Le Pen “admitted that Mr Legier was never paid for this contract during the period in question”.
The report said Le Pen had justified Mr Legier’s contract as a way of getting parliament to reimburse her for unpaid salaries and expenses.
She is also accused of wrongly using parliament funds to pay a France-based FN aide, Catherine Griset, between 2010 and 2016.
Ms Le Pen, who is riding high in polls ahead of the two-stage April 23-May 7 election, has steadfastly denied the claims, which have triggered a French fraud investigation.
The allegations against Ms Le Pen have until now been all but drowned out by a fake jobs scandal engulfing her conservative rival François Fillon.
Mr Fillon, the candidate for the Republicans party, is facing a probe into whether his British wife Penelope wrongly received around €831,400 in French taxpayers’ money as his parliamentary assistant. She told the Telegraph in 2007 “I have never been his assistant.”
Current polls suggest that Ms Le Pen will reach the second round of the presidential election, only to be knocked out either by Mr Fillon or independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, who are running neck and neck in round one.