Author: GIULIA PARAVICINI
French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has hit back with legal action against top EU officials who are trying to recover hundreds of thousands of euros from the National Front leader for misuse of funds.
The MEP’s lawsuit, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, targets the European Parliament’s most senior civil servant, Secretary-General Klaus Welle, the head of the European Anti-Fraud Office (known by its French acronym, OLAF) Giovanni Kessler, and OLAF’s acting director of investigations, Beatriz Sanz Redrado.
It also accuses Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president now campaigning to become German chancellor for the Social Democrats, of being behind what she repeatedly refers to as “fumus persecutionis” (persecution for political ends), implying that the proceedings against her in Brussels are motivated by political bias.
“Saying that Martin Schulz is a political rival of Madame Le Pen is stating the obvious,” reads the document.
Le Pen is a strong bet to get through the first round of the French presidential contest on April 23 — and could come first. However, she would find it tougher to win the second round in May, when moderates of all colors could join forces to back independent leftist Emmanuel Macron or conservative François Fillon and keep out Le Pen, whose radical policy ideas include leaving the euro and holding a referendum on EU membership.
The ferocity of her legal response is partly explained by the party’s financial difficulties. In the middle of a campaign that the party is struggling to fund, Le Pen will have more than half her MEP salary docked and lose her expenses. Three other MEPs from the Front face similar procedures, with Parliament seeking to recover more than half a million euros in total from Le Pen’s parliamentary group, Europe of Nations and Freedom. Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie, who founded the party and is also an MEP but is now estranged from his daughter, was accused of misusing resources and ordered to repay €320,000 last June.
Le Pen accuses the Brussels institutions, in the person of Welle, Kessler and Sanz Redrado, of falsifying evidence to launch a politically motivated investigation against her, according to the lawsuit filed 15 days ago in a Brussels court. Le Pen’s lawyer Marcel Ceccaldi told POLITICO he plans to file another complaint in Luxembourg within the next couple of days. The existing 26-page document asks Belgian prosecutors to charge the trio with using forgery to undermine the National Front and other Euroskeptic forces in the European Parliament.
It is no coincidence, it suggests, that the launch of the investigation into misuse on June 27, 2014 came “one month and two days after the electoral success” of the National Front in European elections. Her party took 25 percent of the French vote to become the biggest French party in the European Parliament, mirroring UKIP’s first place among British parties and giving the EU political establishment a Euroskeptic shock.
Le Pen’s lawsuit portrays this as evidence of a “joint plan carried out by [former] European Parliament’s President [Martin Schulz]” with the complicity of the EU anti-fraud office.
Investigators at OLAF accuse Le Pen of violating the European Parliament’s rules by having two assistants — Thierry Légier and Catherine Griset — carry out non-parliamentary work while on its payroll. She ignored a January 31 deadline to repay €339,000.
“The first aim [of the Front’s legal action] is to obtain a temporary suspension of the measures,” Ceccaldi told POLITICO. He said Welle committed fraud by improperly forwarding to OLAF a letter that had been sent to him by Ceccaldi. The fraud investigators then answered the letter addressed to Welle, the lawyer said. Furthermore, he argues, the institutions did not follow procedure correctly because they did not give Le Pen access to the conclusions of the OLAF report into her activities.
The European Parliament, asked by POLITICO to comment on the lawsuit, denied any political motivation in its investigation of National Front finances or its attempt to recover the money.
“Recovering owed money is a procedure which isn’t part of any attempt to discriminate against or persecute anyone or any political party,” the Parliament replied in a statement. An external investigation was carried out by “an independent organ” — OLAF — “on the basis of elements that are outside the Parliament’s responsibilities – and involving potential offenses to rules defining the social and financial rights of European lawmakers.”
“The administration proceeds in an identical way each time a rule has been potentially broken, whether it is a conclusion done by OLAF or after an assessment by internal audits that breaches to the law have been committed,” the statement added.
A spokesperson for the EU anti-fraud office said OLAF carried out the investigation “in full independence from other institutions or persons.”
“All the persons under investigation had the opportunity to comment on the facts concerning them, including Mrs. Le Pen,” said the spokesperson. “OLAF has therefore fully complied with the procedural safeguards and the related rights of these persons.”
The anti-fraud office has submitted its report to public prosecutors in Paris who are carrying out a related investigation into the National Front over the alleged misuse of assistants in the European Parliament.