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Le Pen’s Inner Circle Fuels Doubt About Bid to ‘Un-Demonize’ Her Party

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image Supporters attended a presidential campaign rally for the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, in Lyon, France, in February. Ms. Le Pen has been working to sanitize the image of the party. Credit Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

PARIS — Little more than a week before France’s presidential election, Marine Le Pen remains a front-runner after working hard to sanitize the image of her party, the National Front, and to distance it from the uglier associations of Europe’s far right.

But descriptions of the inner workings of her party by present and former close Le Pen associates, as well as court documents, raise fresh doubts about the success and sincerity of those efforts.

Even before Ms. Le Pen’s remarks this week denying France’s culpability in a notorious wartime roundup of Jews, recent revelations in the French news media, including a well-documented new book, revived nagging concerns about the sympathies of the woman who would be France’s next president.

Two men in her innermost circle — Frédéric Chatillon and Axel Loustau — are well-known former members of a violent, far-right student union that fought pitched battles with leftists and took a turn toward Hitler nostalgia in the mid-1990s.

Mr. Chatillon, center, during a demonstration of the far-right student movement G.U.D. in Paris in June 1994. Credit Les Rats Maudits

Separately, an affidavit filed in a 2014 defamation lawsuit (later dropped) offers a fuller portrait of Mr. Chatillon’s extremist views from that era.

In the affidavit, Denis Le Moal, once a member of G.U.D., described Mr. Chatillon’s nostalgia for the Third Reich and his closeness to Holocaust deniers.

Mr. Le Moal told of a 1993 rally Mr. Chatillon organized for the student group in Paris that resounded with “Sieg Heils” and Nazi salutes.

“During that period, every year, Frédéric Chatillon organized a dinner on the birthday of the ‘fuhrer,’ April 20, to pay homage to ‘this great man,’” the affidavit states.

It goes on to describe a gathering in a Paris restaurant when Mr. Chatillon brought a painted portrait of Hitler — “a portrait Chatillon showed us during the dinner, saying, ‘My beloved fuhrer, he is magnificent,’ and kissing the picture.”

It says he also organized “striped-pajama” parties as a student, an allusion to the clothing Jews wore in death camps and concentration camps.

“The only debatable point, in the use of the term ‘neo-Nazi,’ is the wrongful qualifier ‘neo,’” the affidavit states.

Requests to arrange interviews with Mr. Chatillon and Mr. Loustau through associates of theirs were unsuccessful. The men have made no secret of their disdain for journalists.

“To hell with Hitler and the Third Reich!” Mr. Chatillon wrote in a recent Facebook posting. “But to hell also with these ‘journalists’ who write whatever the hell they want.”

On Twitter, Mr. Loustau denounced “these activists hiding behind a press card, benefiting from all the means of state television to try to destroy us.”

The National Front’s treasurer, Wallerand de Saint-Just, defended the men. “In no sense are they nostalgic for the Third Reich,” he said.

“They were turbulent boys, but they have become true professionals,” Mr. Saint-Just said. “They work closely with us and we have confidence in them, in the conception, printing and delivery of campaign materials.”

That role has been at the center of a campaign finance scandal that has haunted the National Front for years.

Mr. Chatillon’s company, Riwal, served as the exclusive supplier of campaign materials to the National Front in elections from 2012 to 2015. Prosecutors suspect it of systematically overcharging for posters, fliers and the like sold in campaign “kits” — and then, milking giant reimbursements from the state.

Under French law, the state reimburses the campaign expenses of candidates who earn more than 5 percent of votes. Mr. Chatillon had refined the system to an art, according to a high-ranking French campaign finance official and Mr. Chauprade, as well as two new books that closely examine the National Front’s finances.

The official and one of those books, “Le Procès Interdit de Marine Le Pen,” or “Marine Le Pen’s Forbidden Trial,” by Laurent Fargues, describes how that system worked.

A printer would charge Riwal, say, 180 to 220 euros, or $191 to $233, for 400 posters; Riwal would then charge a small front party affiliated with the National Front, called Jeanne, €500 for the posters. Jeanne, in turn, would charge the candidates the inflated price.

After the election, the candidates would claim reimbursement from the state for the inflated amount, and that reimbursement would be turned over to Jeanne.

At least some of that money would wind up in the coffers of the National Front, according to the French campaign finance official, who requested anonymity because of the continuing presidential campaign.

“They’ve constructed an economy out of reimbursements from the state,” said Mr. Chauprade, who has been interviewed by prosecutors about the party’s financial affairs.

Mr. Chauprade said he had been pressured by Ms. Le Pen herself to buy a kit, but refused, to the fury of party officials.

The system operated through a number of recent election cycles — regional, municipal, legislative — from 2012 on. And most National Front candidates went along with it, the official said.

Once the government oversight agency began to see a pattern of excessive amounts benefiting the National Front, it began to challenge them — knocking off more than €1 million in just one campaign, the official said.

The National Front treasurer, Mr. Saint-Just, who has himself been charged with embezzlement in the scandal, said, “We don’t think we’ve done anything wrong, and we think they will be acquitted.”

As for Mr. Chauprade, “He’s a profound traitor,” Mr. Saint-Just said. “He’s trying to avenge himself.”

The historian, Mr. Lebourg, cast no doubt on the recent revelations about the party, but agreed that Mr. Chauprade was “not exactly the Virgin Mary.”

Mr. Chauprade was elected in 2014 as a National Front deputy in the European Parliament. There he was pursued by human rights groups for hate speech for issuing an anti-Islamist diatribe after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in early 2015.

Now on the outside, he has been willing to say aloud what many critics have long suspected about the National Front.

“It is a mafia-like system,” Mr. Chauprade told the newspaper Le Monde last month. “You stick an arm into it, you are stuck yourself.”

He has also spoken to the police about a phony National Front jobs scheme at the European Parliament, which gives deputies expense money that can be used to pay support staff members.

The European Parliament is now demanding that more than €1 million be returned from six people, including Ms. Le Pen, who are associated with the party. Ms. Le Pen, a European Parliament member, has invoked her parliamentary immunity, although French prosecutors said on Friday that investigators had asked the European Parliament to lift it.

All of that money could be applied to National Front operations in France, giving Ms. Le Pen’s party yet another boost. “Her system was illegal,” Mr. Chauprade said.

Philippe Péninque, a leader of the student movement G.U.D. in the 1970s who remains close to Ms. Le Pen, said he was confident the National Front would be vindicated in its financial scandals.

In a lengthy interview at an outdoor cafe in the moneyed 16th Arrondissement of Paris, he also heaped scorn on journalists and others for writing about Mr. Chatillon and Mr. Loustau. And he defended Mr. Chatillon’s visit to the aging SS man, Mr. Degrelle — “He didn’t open any concentration camps,” he said.

“My friends” were all about “upside-down humor,” he said. “They don’t respect anything.”

They were neither Third Reich nostalgists nor any danger to the party, he said. “Marine kicked out her father, and she keeps the Nazis?” Mr. Péninque asked incredulously.

Mr. Chauprade is not so sure. “She sacrificed her father, and yet they are much more radical,” he said of her inner circle, making a comparison to President Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen K. Bannon.

“If she enters the Elysée” — the French presidential palace — “they will enter as surely as Bannon has entered the Oval Office,” he said.



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