French far right says Russian loan repaid

French far right says Russian loan repaid

National Rally presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, seen here in Moscow with Vladimir Putin, has regularly been accused of supporting the Kremlin's positions. (Photo: AFP)
National Rally presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, seen here in Moscow with Vladimir Putin, has regularly been accused of supporting the Kremlin's positions. (Photo: AFP)

PARIS - France's far-right National Rally (RN) party said it has repaid a loan originally from a Czech-Russian bank that political opponents argued demonstrated its ties to the Kremlin.

The remaining money — 6.1 million of the original 9.4 million euros ($10 million at today's rates) — was paid back "in advance" to the Russian firm Aviazapchast, which had bought the debt, the party said in a statement Tuesday.

RN officials hope that getting out from under the debt can end attacks like President Emmanuel Macron's last year, when he accused their candidate Marine Le Pen of being "dependent on the Russian regime" and President Vladimir Putin during an election debate.

Le Pen is "talking to her banker when she talks to Russia," Macron said at the time.

The loan "is used as an argument by my opponents, in my opinion unfairly, and I don't plan on giving my opponents any arguments," RN chief Jordan Bardella told daily Le Monde.

'Natural candidate' for 2027

Winning dozens of seats in parliamentary elections following Macron's re-election has given the RN access to millions more in public funding, allowing it to repay the Russian debt before the 2028 deadline.

Its announcement of the repayment came the day after Le Pen said she was the party's "natural candidate" to run for president again in 2027, when Macron will have reached his two-term limit.

The loan, originally from the First Czech-Russian Bank (FCBR), kept the party afloat from 2014, when it claimed French lenders were refusing to extend credit.

Later bought by a Russian car rental firm after FCBR went bust, the debt ended up with Aviazapchast, an aircraft components firm owned by former Russian soldiers.

The RN last year opened a parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference in French politics, in a bid to clear itself of allegations it was acting in Russia's interest.

"If (the loan) had committed me to anything at all, I wouldn't have signed up," Le Pen told the MPs.

"It was that or death" for the party because of its financial woes, she added.

But the committee's final report found that the RN was a "relay" for Russia in French politics, highlighting its "alignment" with Kremlin messaging when Moscow claimed to have annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

The party has also opposed French aid for Ukraine since Russia's invasion last year, and did not vote when the French parliament approved bids by Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

Marine Le Pen "has given no sign of a real break with the Kremlin", public broadcaster FranceInfo commented in an editorial.

"If tomorrow she continues to take pro-Russian positions, (she) will at least prove that it's not out of self-interest, but a real political choice."

EU fake jobs claims

Le Pen's lawyer said Thursday that she had also paid almost 330,000 euros ($350,000) to the European Parliament, where she was accused of improperly employing two people as "assistants" while serving as an MEP.

EU fraud watchdog OLAF had said she owed 339,000 euros for paying her party chief of staff Catherine Griset and bodyguard Thierry Legier from parliamentary funds.

Le Pen had until now refused to pay, insisting that the pair did in fact work for her at the European Parliament — prompting the assembly's finance service to dock her pay and other funding by 50 percent in her final months as an MEP in 2017, according to French news site Mediapart.

She had paid now "to avoid forced execution" of the repayment, "whose basis is still contested by my client," Le Pen's lawyer Rodolphe Bosselut said.

The move "does not in any way constitute explicit or implicit recognition of the European Parliament's claims", he added.

Le Pen, who this week said she plans to stand for president for a fourth time in 2027, is among 29 people under investigation in France over alleged fake jobs set up by MEPs from the RN.

A decision is expected soon on whether a trial will go ahead.

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