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French police detain key Le Pen aides over EU 'fake jobs' probe

French authorities are questioning the National Front leader's bodyguard and chief of staff over allegations they were illegally paid using EU funds. Le Pen has dismissed the investigation as a vendetta against her.

Two key aides to Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate for the French presidency, were taken into police custody on Wednesday as part of an investigation into whether her National Front (FN) party misused European Union funds.

Le Pen's bodyguard, Thierry Legier, and her chief of staff, Catherine Griset, were detained and held for questioning over allegations their salaries were paid using EU parliamentary funds. Soon after, French news agencies, citing judicial sources, reported that Griset's case had progressed to the next stage - namely a formal investigation after a judge decided that one was warranted.

Le Pen is a member of the European Parliament, but as FN leader and presidential candidate, she also employs staff members whose roles are mainly or entirely connected to domestic politics.

The EU's anti-fraud office has said the European Parliament paid some 41,554 euros ($44,000) towards a contract for Legier after Le Pen submitted a "fictional" work contract presenting him as an assistant. 

Griset was also alleged to have been paid using EU money, although she was living near Paris and working on behalf of the party back in France rather than in the European assembly.

Le Pen has denied any wrongdoing and maintains that the investigations are a politically motivated vendetta. Her lawyer, Marcel Ceccaldi, described the move as a "manipulation" designed to destabilize her campaign less than two months before the first-round voting in the presidential election.

"The French can tell the difference between genuine scandals and political dirty-tricks," Le Pen told reporters.

Wednesday's arrests followed a police raid of the FN's campaign headquarters in Nanterre on Monday while Le Pen was on a state visit to Lebanon.

The European Parliament has previously accused the FN's leader of paying party staff with EU funds during the 2011-2012 legislature, saying that she defrauded it of nearly 340,000 euros. Le Pen has also denied any wrongdoing in this instance, citing an accounting adjustment. Her refusal so far to reimburse the money has led the European Parliament to begin docking her MEP's salary of 16,000 euros per month.

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Le Pen has been consistently tipped to win the first round of the two-round of the French presidential election race on April 23, but is widely expected to lose the second round ballot on May 7 - either to conservative candidate Francois Fillon or independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, the other candidates that appear most likely to make the head-to-head run-off.

The graft case has landed Le Pen in the spotlight alongside Fillon, who himself is also under investigation over claims he used public funds to pay his wife for years as his assistant although she allegedly never carried out any work.

Fillon's poll ratings plummeted as a result but have since steadied. A poll published for broadcaster BFMTV and L'Express magazine on Tuesday showed the conservative candidate to be more or less neck-and-neck with Macron.

dm/msh (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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