Prosecutors’ attempts to smear Marine Le Pen in the French election have so far done little damage to her campaign, but the attempts have not ceased.
On Tuesday, a committee of lawmakers in Brussels will consider a French legal request to strip the National Front leader of her parliamentary immunity over two cases of defamation and “publishing violent images of Islamic State killings” on Twitter, Bloomberg reported.
Le Pen had tweeted a photograph of the decapitated body of an American hostage who was brutally murdered by ISIS at the end of 2015.
She posted the image after a leftwing journalist compared her National Front party to ISIS, but the parents of the dead hostage complained. Le Pen took down the image from her Twitter account after their complaint but noted that the photograph was available on Google. “It can be accessed by anyone on Google,” she said.
The prosecutor’s office in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre confirmed that it had launched an investigation into “the dissemination of violent images” following Le Pen’s tweets with the caption ‘This is Daesh’ — an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The committee is due to release its recommendations to the EU parliament next week, and the full chamber will vote on the issue later in March, just in time for the first round in France’s April elections, but the Socialists tried to deny any political skullduggery.
Socialist Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche that state prosecutors were going to continue their inquiry during the election campaign. Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, struggling in fourth place in the polls, backed the probe launched by his party.
“The justice system is independent,” he said on France Inter radio on Monday. “They are involved in the election because there are serious suspicions of fraud.”
The emergence of the allegations just weeks before the first round vote on April 23 suggest that French courts are interfering with the campaign to stop Marine. Didier Rebut, a law professor at the University of Paris 2 Pantheon-Assas, says prosecutors seem to be in a huge hurry with the probe: “We’ve set new records for speed.”
Last week, Le Pen refused a non-binding summons to be interviewed by French police over use of European Parliament funds. Le Pen told French investigators she won’t meet them until after the presidential elections, at the end of the vote on a new legislature in June.
“The magistrates are there to apply the law, not to invent the law and thwart the will of the people,” Le Pen told supporters at a rally on Sunday in Nantes.
A professor of French culture and politics at Stanford University, told Bloomberg: “In the National Front’s affair there’s no accusation of personal enrichment, while in the case of Francois Fillon it’s him and his family that are the direct targets of the probe,” said Cecile Alduy.
Also the FN is seen as an anti-establishment party. “The National Front is seen as persecuted by the system so their supporters think that if everyone else has gotten rich of the system, it’s good for them to get some of that money back,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist linked to the Jean Jaures research institute.
“[Francois]Fillon tried to use the conspiracy angle but it doesn’t work because he’s from the system,” says Jaures.
Bloomberg reports that the establishment’s one-time champion, the Republican Francois Fillon is facing a setback due to the criminal probe directed against him, boosting banker candidate Emmanuel Macron’s chances.
But the National Front has long been ahead with digital communication. It is “bigger and more professional than social media operations of rivals including former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron”, Politico reported.
It was the first party in France to put up a website in the mid-1990s. Today the FN social media operation is considerable, and commands legions of online volunteers in France, Europe and beyond who work each day to amplify their message.
The investment has paid off as Le Pen boasts the highest social media “engagement rate” (measured by likes and follows) of any presidential candidate.
Le Pen HQ l’Escale
“Unlike other parties, which have accounts only managed by officials… Marine Le Pen has a vast network of support from militants on social media,” said the manager of Avec Marine, a Twitter account with 15 400 followers. The 23-year-old professional who asked to remain anonymous, said he was not employed by the party.
Philippe Vardon, an anti-immigrant activist, called the “king of agitprop” runs the sophisticated social media campaign to get Marine Le Pen elected as president. Its epicenter, known as l’Escale [The Stopover] to insiders, is situated in western Paris, a short walk away from the Place de l’Etoile.
Some 15 permanent web staffers at the office package and broadcast Le Pen’s campaign content, branded MLP2017 on batteries of Apple computers.
“What we observed during the Brexit campaign, and then in the US presidential election, is that the winning parties also had very strong social media campaigns,” said Albéric Guigou, head of Reputation Squad, a social media consulting agency. “In France, the National Front clearly has a major advance in this area on its rivals, both in terms of popularity and their methods.”
“Vardon is a specialist in all those things, the agitprop aspect,” said Sébastien Chenu, another member of the unit, and Le Pen’s cultural adviser. Vardon is a former member of the Bloc Identitaire.
Le Pen also runs a personal blog, Carnet d’Espérances [Notebooks of Hope], a mix of policy digests and photographs of the countryside.
Gaëtan Bertrand, the coordinator of Le Pen’s web campaign, said the party did not receive any advice or assistance from partners outside of France.
Vardon also confirmed that the Front had no formal connections to activists abroad, but he acknowledged the existence of a global patriotic front online. “All of a sudden, we see a lot of people, especially Trump supporters, who consider that, ‘OK, now Brexit is done, now Trump is done, we are moving on to France.’ You can see how central the French election is to their view of the world,” he said.
The National Front had coined #FillonGate, a new hashtag devoted to allegations against the Republicans’ candidate. In January, after the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported that Fillon had paid his British wife Penelope large sums from parliamentary funds, #FillonGate became #PenelopeGate. It quickly rose to the second highest trending topic on Twitter.
“These campaigns rely on preparation, discipline, speed and a huge number of supporters amplifying the message,” said Gaëtan Dussaussaye, director of the FN youth wing. “Without them, we would never reach so many people.”