Extremist past mars makeover of France’s far-right party
PARIS (AP) — The timing could not have been worse. Daggers were already drawn in a father-daughter duel within the far-right National Front when a judicial investigation began circling closer and closer to the party leadership.
The probe, one of three currently targeting the National Front or its alliances, has reawakened images of anti-Semitism and jack-booted followers that party leader Marine Le Pen has worked hard to scrub away.
Le Pen is hoping to transform the National Front from a political pariah into a voter-friendly alternative to traditional parties amid a fight for the movement’s soul between her and her father, Jean-Marie, whose anti-Semitic remarks set off the family feud.
These three investigations could end up outing professional and personal secrets and tarnish the respectable veneer Marine Le Pen is applying to the party she inherited in 2011. Under the elder Le Pen’s four-decade leadership, the National Front became emblematic of France’s dark past, from anti-Semitic collaboration with the Nazis in World War II to the brutality of the French colonial war to keep Algeria.
A truce of sorts between father and daughter may end the family bloodletting. But the justice system is beyond the National Front leader’s control as she sets her sights on the 2017 French presidential elections.
The investigations are uncovering a tangled web of alleged illegal financing in Paris and at the European Parliament. The Paris case raises questions about a more extremist side of the National Front under Marine Le Pen, who still works with old university acquaintances with unsavory backgrounds.
Allegations of fraud, money laundering and illegal financing targeting National Front-linked communications company Riwal highlight Marine Le Pen’s longstanding ties with the principal target in that case, Frederic Chatillon. He was a figure in the extreme-right GUD, or Union Defense Group, known for violence when it was active decades ago.
Today, Chatillon runs Riwal. He is among those facing preliminary charges in the case, prosecutor’s spokeswoman Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre said. He, as well as one other person under investigation, recycled himself from his GUD past into a successful businessman. His company has a branch in Syria, where he once hobnobbed with other figures from the extreme right and the Syrian elite of Bashar Assad’s regime.
Two photos carried in the investigative online publication Mediapart show Chatillon in Syria with, among others, Dieudonne, the French comic convicted of anti-Semitism. Chatillon is seen again in Paris with Dieudonne and Robert Faurisson, convicted several times for denying the Holocaust.
Marine Le Pen, in turn, is seen in photos with Chatillon on official party business.
Far-right experts say that Chatillon and Le Pen became acquainted at Assas University in Paris, where she attended law school. Also under investigation is Axel Loustau, another former GUD member. Loustau is treasurer at an organization that raises funds for the National Front. He also owns a security company used by the National Front for major events such as the party’s annual May Day march.
The GUD group was forced out of Assas University in the 1990s and eventually went silent. A younger generation of extreme rightists is trying to bring GUD back to life.
Marine Le Pen, just named by Time as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, did not respond to Associated Press requests for comment on the investigation.
After reports that the investigators might reach high-level figures in the party — and perhaps Le Pen herself — she wrote on Twitter last weekend: “The obviously fantasy-like character of the latest judicial offensive shows it is of an exclusively political nature.”
The National Front’s legal problems do not stop there.
The party faces a direct legal challenge at the seat of one of its biggest electoral successes, the European Parliament. The parliament’s anti-fraud unit opened an investigation last month into possible irregularities in the payment of parliamentary assistants for the National Front’s 24 lawmakers, after suspicions of free-loading emerged.
Twenty assistants paid by the parliament are targeted in the probe. They are listed by the National Front as party officials — and 19 of them used the party’s headquarters as their address. That conflicts with rules stating that assistants’ pay must be “directly linked” to the lawmaker’s mandate at the parliament.
The sum of money paid to National Front assistants is considerable. Each lawmaker in the European Parliament was allotted a maximum of 21,379 euros (about $28,000) per month in 2014 for assistants who would be paid over the five-year mandate of their bosses, said spokeswoman Marjory Van Den Broeke.
“There have been individual cases ... but this was an exception in that it was so large scale,” she said of the probe into the National Front’s assistants.
France has opened its own inquiry into the parliamentary assistants.
Marine Le Pen has sought to lay down the law within her own party on other fronts. She announced she would oppose her father’s candidacy in December regional elections. Buckling under her authority, the elder Le Pen withdrew his name, all but ending his political career.
A preliminary investigation against Jean-Marie Le Pen for disputing crimes against humanity has been opened after he said Nazi gas chambers were a “detail in history.” He has previously been convicted for making such comments.
A crueler punishment may come at the hands of his daughter, who has ordered him before a party disciplinary board. Among possible punishments: stripping him of the title of lifelong honorary president of the party he helped create.