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French far-right MEPs exploit loophole when hiring parliamentary assistants

National Front members and EMPs (left to right) Marine Le Pen, Louis Aliot, Marie-Christine Arnautu and Jean-Marie Le Pen at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in May 2015.

The European Parliament prohibits its lawmakers from hiring family members as assistants, but France’s far-right National Front (FN) has found an easy - and legal - way to flout the rule.

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MEPs belonging to France’s anti-immigration, Eurosceptic party hire one another’s family members as parliamentary assistants, thus skirting regulations meant to prevent nepotism. The questionable practice is nothing new, but has come under increasing scrutiny in France amid a turbulent presidential campaign.

The statutes for members of the European Parliament are clear: “MEPs may not employ close relatives as assistants. Their assistants must not engage in any external activities that might result in a conflict of interest.” And France’s far-right representatives in Brussels have respected that rule, except they have routinely hired spouses and family members of fellow-MEPs.

On Wednesday, the French edition of BuzzFeed revealed that the husband of MEP Mylène Troszczynski (Laurent Guiniot) was working as a parliamentary assistant of MEP Joëlle Mélin, while the husband of MEP Marie-Christine Arnautu (Philippe Chevrier) was employed as a parliamentary assistant of MEP Marie-Christine Boutonnet.

EU parliament officials admitted to BuzzFeed that there was nothing strictly illegal about employing fellow-MEPs' spouses, even if it was frowned upon.

‘Penelope Gate’ parallels

The arrangement could have easily gone unnoticed, if it were not for FN party leader Marine Le Pen’s ongoing and separate row with the European Parliament over her own assistants and the alleged misuse of EU funds.

Europe’s anti-fraud office OLAF has concluded that two aids on Le Pen’s parliamentary payroll almost exclusively worked for her party back in France, when staff is required by contract to work on EU business at one of the three official sites: Brussels, Luxembourg or Strasbourg.

The far-right leader, who kicked off her presidential campaign in the city of Lyon on Sunday, has refused to disburse the €340,000 that EU authorities are demanding as repayment.

The FN’s dubious hiring practices in Brussels have also earned extra attention amid the “fake job” scandal surrounding former French prime minister François Fillon and his wife Penelope. The conservative presidential hopeful employed his spouse for years as a parliamentary assistant in France.

Unlike at the European Parliament, hiring a family member as a parliamentary assistant in France is legal. However, Penelope Fillon is suspected of collecting close to €1 million in wages from her husband and his colleagues without actually doing any work.

Fillon has refused to quit the presidential race amind a preliminary probe by French investigators. He was the clear favorite, but the so-called Penelope Gate affair has thrown the election wide open.

Blurred lines

MEP Joëlle Mélin defended her decision to hire her colleague’s husband as a parliamentary assistant, telling BuzzFeed, “Everything has been verified by the parliament.” She added: “It is perfectly justified, because my parliamentary assistant is fully competent.”

“It must be said that it is very difficult to work for the FN, because your reputation is ruined in the process. So when the FN has talented people, we try to keep them, and sometimes they happen to be members of our own family,” BuzzFeed quoted Mélin as saying.

Indeed, blurring the borders between family and politics is the FN’s specialty. Founder Jean-Marie Le Pen led the far-right camp for four decades before he passed the reins to his youngest daughter Marine in 2011. His grand-daughter, French MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, appears like a natural, future successor.

Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen had a falling out in 2015 over his recurrent anti-Semitic comments, and the FN figurehead was eventually kicked out of the party. But despite the public row, Marine Le Pen borrowed €6 million from her father’s company this year to bankroll her presidential bid.

A party tradition

The National Front is a political dynasty, and exploiting European Parliament loopholes is one of its traditions. When the institution introduced the rule barring MEP’s from employing “close relatives” as parliamentary assistants in 2009, Le Pen senior convinced fellow lawmaker Bruno Gollnisch to hire his daughter Yann Le Pen (Marion’s mother) as an aid, according to French weekly Le Canard Enchainé.

A few years later, in 2012, Marine Le Pen hired her partner and FN official Louis Aliot as one of her parliamentary assistants. Their relationship has been widely publicised in the French press – which the couple have not shied away from – but they are neither married nor in a civil partnership.

Responding to the revelation in 2013, Le Pen did not deny she had hired her full-time boyfriend for a part-time gig at the European Parliament, but only defied anyone to produce a legal document that showed the pair had any legal responsibility towards each other.

At the time, Le Pen and Aliot threatened to sue the French news website Mediapart for bringing the information to light. Now, facing sanctions in connection to her EU parliamentary assistants and comparisons to the Fillon scandal, Le Pen is wielding a similar strategy.

While rejecting any parallels to presidential rival Fillon, she has filed a lawsuit against Europe’s anti-fraud chiefs. She accuses three top EU officials of waging a politically motivated investigation against her.

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