French police detain aides of far-right leader Marine Le Pen over alleged misuse of EU funds

Marine Le Pen (centre), flanked by her bodyguard Thierry Legier (left), entering a car after visiting the French-Italian border during an election campaign visit in Menton, France on Feb 13, 2017.
Marine Le Pen (centre), flanked by her bodyguard Thierry Legier (left), entering a car after visiting the French-Italian border during an election campaign visit in Menton, France on Feb 13, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

PARIS (REUTERS) - French anti-graft police on Wednesday (Feb 22) questioned two aides to Marine Le Pen over “fake jobs” allegations as polls show the scandal does not yet appear to have hurt her bid for the French presidency.

Le Pen’s National Front (FN) party said her bodyguard Thierry Legier and personal assistant Catherine Griset were questioned as part of a probe launched in December at the behest of the European Parliament.

The body accuses Le Pen, who is a Member of the European Parliament, of using parliamentary funds to pay Legier and Griset a total of about 340,000 euros (S$500,000) while they worked for the FN elsewhere.

Next month, it will begin docking half of Le Pen’s salary and allowances totalling 16,000 euros, after she refused to repay the funds.

The 48-year-old FN leader, who has vowed to call a referendum on France’s membership of the European Union if elected, has angrily denied the allegations, and on Wednesday again described the investigation as a vendetta against her.

“The French people are well aware of the difference between genuine cases and political intrigues,” she told reporters during a campaign event.

On Monday, police raided the FN’s headquarters in Nanterre outside Paris for a second time, the party said.

Despite the allegations, Le Pen is riding high in the polls two months before the first round of France’s two-stage presidential election on April 23. The second round is on May 7.

Since the start of the race, polls have suggested she will top the first round of voting, assuring her a place in the second round run-off.

Even though pollsters still rule out victory for the anti-immigration candidate, she is closing the gap in hypothetical second-round match-ups.

Since the start of the year, Le Pen has added about six percentage points to her standing against conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who was hit by his own “fake jobs” scandal late last month.

A poll in early January by Ifop gave Le Pen 36 per cent to 64 per cent for Fillon in the second round, a 28-point gap. She narrowed that to 12 points in an Elabe survey out on Tuesday that showed her losing by 44 to 56 per cent.

Her numbers are similar in a theoretical duel with centrist former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, at 42-58 percent, from a 30-point deficit in early January.

Voter surveys suggest that Fillon, 62, is regaining ground after his campaign faltered over allegations that his wife netted at least 680,000 euros for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant over a period spanning 15 years. He has denied the allegations.

Fillon saw his support drop from a high of around 25 percent before the revelations to a low of 18 per cent on Feb 8.

The former prime minister’s numbers have since stabilised before inching up to 21 per cent in the latest survey by Elabe.

His woes boosted the fortunes of Macron, 39, who has bested him in first-round voter intentions for most of February before falling back to 18.5 per cent in the Elabe poll.