As the most bizarre presidential election in recent French history heads towards a conclusion, the alleged financial crimes of two of the favourites continue to dominate the campaign.
Both François Fillon, of the conservative Républicains, and Marine Le Pen, of the far-Right Front National (FN), face trial and imprisonment for swindling money out of taxpayers through setting up fake jobs.
Mr Fillon’s British-born wife, Penelope Fillon, is said to have received more than one million euros for doing next to nothing as both a parliamentary assistant and a literary consultant.
Ms Le Pen, meanwhile, is accused of masterminding a system of fictional but extremely lucrative posts in the European Parliament for FN staff.
Neither candidate likes to mention these facts, and both deny any wrongdoing, but the prospect of an indicted criminal suspect becoming head of state in May is naturally one that causes absolute astonishment, and indeed outrage.
Anyone who is prepared to accept Marine Le Pen’s claim that she has exorcised the party of its demons should bear this in mind when they enter the ballot booth later this month.Nabila Ramdani
What is less well publicised, however, is how France is on the verge of seeing a fascist with close links to neo-Nazis getting through to the second round of the election.
We are allowed to call Marine Le Pen a fascist thanks to two legal rulings. The first followed Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left wing presidential candidate, saying: “Why do you think that the French people would be the only people to want a fascist as leader?” A Paris court firmly rejected a complaint by Ms Le Pen about this comment in February, arguing that Mr Mélenchon was perfectly entitled to such an opinion.
In 2015, judges in the French capital decided that the comedian Nicolas Bedos even had the right to call Ms Le Pen a “fascist bitch”. Harsh language, but these verdicts were certainly not just about semantics. Just 73 years after Paris was under Nazi control, and the French were assisting in the mass murder of civilians, some voters are contemplating installing a woman in the Élysée Palace whose friends and family number Holocaust deniers and Hitler aficionados.
Only last month, a key Le Pen lieutenant was exposed by a hidden camera questioning the figures for Jews who died in Nazi death camps, and who stocked Third Reich and negationist literature in his bookshop in Nice. Benoît Loeuillet, head of the FN in the Riviera city and a regional councillor, was immediately suspended from these positions, but recent investigations show that his views are frighteningly common among Le Pen’s inner circle.
The Nazi salute
“Marine Knows All About It…”, a new book by journalists Mathias Destal and Marine Turchi frames the problem. It includes a French intelligence report about Frédéric Chatillon, a Le Pen communications advisor and one of her oldest friends, making a Nazi salute. Chatillon distributed posters calling the desecration of a Jewish cemetery a “frame-up” and was a regular visitor to Léon Degrelle, the late Belgian Nazi collaborator and Waffen SS veteran, in the 1990s.
This was around the same time that Ms Le Pen herself was pictured with Franz Schönhuber, also a former SS officer who helped to found Germany’s fiercely anti-immigrant Republicans party.
Denis Le Moal, a former political ally of both Le Pen and Chatillon, told how Chatillon organised a dinner to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday every April 20th. At one point Chatillon kissed a painting of the dictator, saying: “My beloved Führer, he is magnificent”, according to the book by Destal and Turchi.
A documentary produced by the France 2 TV channel also revealed how Chatillon and his cronies “joked” about Auschwitz. They said the German concentration camp had plenty of facilities beyond gas chambers, including football pitches and swimming pools, and that not enough Jews perished there. It was also disclosed that Le Pen’s friends were obsessed with the swastika, and referred to Hitler affectionately as “Uncle”.
As recently as 2011, Le Pen’s confidante and FN councillor Alex Lousteau was also photographed giving a Nazi salute, although he claimed he was just paying tribute to guests who turned up at his 40th birthday party.
Ms Le Pen refutes any associations with Nazis, and even insists she has cut all ties with her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, the convicted racist, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. What she does not advertise is that Le Pen senior remains Honorary President of the FN, and is indeed funding her presidential campaign to the tune of 6 million euros through Cotelec, a company he owns.
Hatred of ‘foreigners’
Those of us who have attended recent Le Pen rallies can testify that her hateful attitude towards “foreigners” (a catch all euphemism that apparently includes most ethnic and religious minorities, and especially Muslims) is every bit as vitriolic as that of her father’s, who founded the FN in the 1970s and led it for decades.
Last weekend she caused fury by denying France’s responsibility in the so-called Vel’ d’Hiv’ – a notorious round up of 13,152 Jews by Paris police in 1942 before most were deported to Germany to be exterminated. This kind of horrendous historical revisionism was just the type that got Jean-Marie Le Pen his criminal convictions.
He infamously got through to the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, and it seems that Marine Le Pen may be about to repeat the feat. This will mean millions of French voters once again ignoring the terrifying reality of the FN.
Allegations of financial corruption are deplorable, but they fade into insignificance compared to praising and adhering to one of the darkest ideologies in world history. Anyone who is prepared to accept Marine Le Pen’s claim that she has exorcised the party of its demons should bear this in mind when they enter the ballot booth later this month.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning Paris-born freelance journalist of Algerian descent who specializes in French politics, Islamic affairs, and the Arab World. She writes regular columns for British, French and Middle Eastern press. Nabila is a winner of the Best Arab journalist in the West Award 2012 organized by the London-based Arabs Group network. She is an honoree of the Global Thinkers Forum Excellence in Innovation Award 2012 and is a Fellow on the pioneering U.N. Alliance of Civilizations program.She can be found on Twitter: @NabilaRamdani