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The Teflon candidate

France's far-right leader climbs in polls despite arrests of two aides

France’s far-right leader climbs in polls despite arrests of two aides

Just as new opinion polls show an improving chance for Marine Le Pen to win the first round of the upcoming French presidential election, the far-right candidate is facing scandal, with two of her aides taken in Wednesday for police questioning. The authorities are investigating whether the National Front leader improperly used European Parliamentary money to pay their salaries.

Le Pen, who is running on an anti-immigration, anti-EU platform, strongly denies any impropriety, calling the allegations a “political plot.” She is just the latest presidential candidate to be embroiled in controversy as the most open election in France’s history continues to bring surprises and allegations.

These allegations came in the same week that Le Pen was criticized for her refusal to wear a headscarf to meet a senior Islamic cleric in Lebanon, as well as her proposal for closer ties to Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, her stance against the acceptance of Islamic customs is likely to win her some votes in secular France.

Here’s what you need to know about France’s roller-coaster election:

  • According to a source speaking to Agence France-Presse, Le Pen is accused of creating fake roles for her bodyguard and her former Cabinet head as parliamentary assistants at the European Parliament. Le Pen, whose offices were searched by police Monday, claims the investigation into her party’s misuse of European funds is a “political plot” set up to undermine her campaign.
  • Despite the controversy, Le Pen’s star continues to rise. An opinion poll conducted by Elabe for L’Express magazine predicts Le Pen would gain 28 percent of the vote in the first round of voting (April 23), up two points from the last poll. Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron dropped five points to 18.5 percent, while Republican candidate François Fillon stormed back into the race at 21 percent, up three points. 
  • The poll also shows that in the second round of voting, to take place on May 7, Le Pen would be beaten by both Macron and Fillon. However, for the first time Le Pen is polling above 40 percent against her opponents as she closes the gap.
  • The latest poll findings are just the latest surprise in an election race seen as the most open in France’s history. Incumbent Francois Hollande opted not to run as a result of being the most unpopular French president ever. Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe lost the Republican primary to Fillon, despite being the favorite for over a year.
  • Fillon has made a surprise comeback after a financial controversy of his own threatened to derail his campaign. Revelations that Fillon paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for work she may not have done seemed to kill the former prime minister’s chances. However, a sustained social media campaign over the weekend and a sweetened program of reforms look to have turned things around.
  • Macron is learning that being a centrist candidate and trying to keep everyone happy is not easy. During a visit to Algeria on Feb. 14, he described colonial rule as a “crime against humanity” — outraging those on the right. Then, trying to appease conservative voters, he angered those on the left by saying that those who opposed gay marriage had been “humiliated” by President Hollande’s Socialist government. The missteps may see him lose momentum and voter share to his main rival, Fillon.

The election campaign is likely to feature many more twists and turns — especially given the threat of interference from Russia. Later this week the French government will hold an election security meeting to discuss concerns raised by alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential campaign. French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault asserted: “This form of interference in French democratic life is unacceptable and I denounce it.”

Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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