French daily Le Monde revealed Tuesday that close aides of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right, populist National Front party, and her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen were named in the so-called Panama Papers. Dubbed the biggest data leak in history, the release of the confidential documents show how the world's rich and powerful squirreled away their millions in tax havens. The appearance of people closely tied to the National Front in the scandal might damage the popularity of a party that has risen in the polls thanks to its anti-immigrant stance and strenuous defense of what it describes as traditional French values.
On Monday, Le Monde's editor in chief Jerôme Fénoglio announced that "a major French political party" was involved in hidden financial dealings, without revealing which one. In an article published Tuesday, the daily said that businessman Frédéric Chatillon and accountant Nicolas Crochet — two close allies of Marine Le Pen with ties to the party — were implicated in the scandal.
Chatillon and Crochet were both charged in 2015 with illegal campaign financing dating back to 2012. Information obtained by Le Monde in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) could provide clues as to how aides were able to stash large sums in offshore accounts, out of sight of the French taxman.
According to Le Monde, Chatillon transferred 316,000 euros ($360,000) from the accounts of his PR company Riwal, to an account based in Singapore. Riwal has worked closely with the FN, and in 2012, handled communications for the party during the presidential and legislative elections. At the time, Crochet handled accounting for the party's candidates.
Le Monde says that the two men used several intermediaries and at least four separate companies to process the transaction. One of these companies was set up in the British Virgin Islands — another known tax haven — by Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which is at the heart of the Panama Papers scandal.
Questioned by Le Monde, Chatillon defended the transaction, saying he had been drawn to the "profitability prospects" in Asia, back in 2012. He explained that he had moved the money there to "avoid the usual media pressure in France." The money, he said, was withdrawn to "help a friend," who was then the CEO of the company to whom the 316,000 euros was transferred.
In a statement published Monday, the FN denied any implication in the scandal and warned reporters that the party "would not hesitate to take legal action" for what it said would amount to "serious slander."
The Panama Papers could also bring new clues to the ongoing investigation into "money laundering and tax fraud" faced by Le Pen senior and his wife Jeanine. Investigators are trying to determine whether Le Pen's former butler Gérald Gérin helped the couple transfer large sums of money in and out of the country.
According to Le Monde, Mossack Fonseca may have helped conceal part of Le Pen's wealth in an offshore company set up in 2000 on a Caribbean island. That amount is estimated at 2.2 million euros ($2.5 million) in bills, gold bullion and gold coins.
French tax authorities became curious when they spotted suspicious transactions on the personal accounts of the former butler, including a 30,560 euro ($34,800) bank transfer from 2010 labeled " Mrs. Le Pen Advance."
The butler told Le Monde that the money was a fund he had put away for "his old age," and that it had "nothing to do with Jean-Marie Le Pen." The former FN president said that, "M. Gérin's business dealings concern only M. Gérin."
The release of the Panama Papers has already sent shock waves through the world, including in Iceland, where protesters took to the streets calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, after it was revealed he and his wife had around $4 million of undisclosed assets stashed away in a private offshore company. Gunnlaugsson stepped down earlier Tuesday.
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