It's been a tough year so far for Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of France's far-right National Front (FN) party and one of the most controversial figures in French politics. After a very public rift with his daughter and current party leader Marine Le Pen, which cost him the FN nomination in a regional poll, the elder Le Pen now faces an investigation over allegations that he squirreled away 2.2 million euros ($2.42 million) in a hidden Swiss bank account.
According to French investigative website Médiapart, Le Pen failed to disclose a small fortune — including 1.7 million euros ($1.87 million) worth of gold bars and coins — to France's anti-corruption body HATVP.
Médiapart reported that the Swiss account was managed by Le Pen's former butler Gérald Gérin, who now occupies several roles within the party, including the post of treasurer at Cotelec and Promelec, two FN "microparties" — organizations set up to raise funds for the party. Gérin also works as an assistant for FN parliamentarian Marie-Christine Arnautu, and is a local councilor for the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur (PACA) region.
Prosecuting authorities in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre said Tracfin, the French government's anti-money-laundering unit, alerted them to the alleged hidden millions, and the court's financial division is now overseeing the case.
Speaking Tuesday on radio station France Inter, Le Pen said he was "under no obligation" to explain himself "to anyone, particularly [not] the para-police group that is tasked with disrupting the political class."
Médiapart — a left-leaning news site that has made a name for itself with high-profile investigations into political and financial scandals — said that Gérin "became, in 2008, the beneficiary of Balerton Marketing Limited, a trust based in the British Virgin Islands." According to reports, the legal entity held an account with HSBC until May 2014, when the funds were transferred to a Swiss CBH account in the Bahamas.
The investigation into Le Pen's possible offshore millions is just the latest in a string of financial scandals to hit France's anti-immigration party amid efforts to make the historically controversial party more appealing to voters.
Six FN members — including advisors to Marine Le Pen — are currently involved in an investigation into FN campaign financing, and in March the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) started looking into alleged financial irregularities concerning the salaries of several FN parliamentary assistants. The FN is accused of charging the European Parliament for the salary of assistants, whose work extends beyond their parliamentary duties. According to French daily Libération, the alleged fraud involves 7.5 million euros ($8.22 million).
Meanwhile, socialist parliamentarians have called for an investigation into allegations that the FN secured a 9.46 million euro ($10.4 million) loan from the Kremlin in exchange for Marine Le Pen's public endorsement of Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
Jean-Marie Le Pen is already facing scrutiny for other alleged undeclared millions. In 2013, authorities opened a preliminary investigation into Le Pen's undisclosed assets, which were estimated at 1.1 million euros ($1.21 million). Earlier that year, Le Pen admitted to holding a Swiss UBS bank account since 1981.
Le Pen is also due to face party executives at a disciplinary hearing on May 4, the result of incendiary comments he made on French television and in the extreme-right weekly Rivarol. After repeating his earlier claims that WWII gas chambers were a mere "detail" of history, and calling for the safeguarding of "the white world," Le Pen's daughter distanced herself from her father and called for his exit from politics.
While the elder Le Pen hasn't confirmed his attendance at the hearing, he announced he would attend the FN's traditional May 1 celebration — despite the fact that he wasn't invited to speak at the rally.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho
Photo via Kenji-Baptiste OIKAWA/Wikimedia Commons