Marine Le Pen’s party pays back Russian loan

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Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party has paid back the roughly €6mn remaining on a loan it owed to a Russian company called Aviazapchast as it seeks to blunt attacks from opponents about its links to Russia.

Taken out initially in 2014, the loan has fuelled concern that Le Pen is under the Kremlin’s sway, and scrutiny of the financial ties between her party and Moscow have only intensified since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

“We wanted to pay the loan back as fast as possible,” RN party treasurer Kévin Pfeffer, who is also a deputy in the National Assembly, told the Financial Times.

Pfeffer said repeated checks carried out by France’s regulator of campaign finance had shown that the loan, due by the end of 2028, had “no issues”, but that the RN had nevertheless decided to put the matter behind it.

“It was a bad-faith argument from our opponents, but they will no longer be able to use this against us,” Pfeffer said.

Concerned about reputational risks, French banks have long shied away from lending to the party that Le Pen in 2011 took over from her father, who was known for inflammatory and, at times, racist rhetoric. The issue persists: to help fund her last presidential run in 2022, Le Pen took out a €10.7mn personal loan from a Hungarian bank with ties to the prime minister Viktor Orbán.

But it was back in 2014 that the party first turned to Russia for financing, taking out a €9.4mn loan from First Czech-Russia bank to help finance political activities and election campaigns.

After the Russian bank made the initial loan, leaked text messages between Russian officials, seen by the FT, suggested the Kremlin had ordered the loan as a reward for Le Pen’s fealty. She has called those claims “outrageous and offensive”.

When the bank went bust in 2016, the loan was transferred to Aviazapchast, a Moscow-based company that supplies Russian military aircraft and parts in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

In 2020, the US state department put Aviazapchast under sanctions for violating a law that aims to stop weapons sales to Iran, North Korea and Syria. However, the company has not been hit by sanctions by the US or EU related to the war in Ukraine.

Since Russia’s invasion, Le Pen has been on the defensive about her previously vocal support for Vladimir Putin and Russia. In 2014 she openly backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And in an effort to burnish her international credentials when running for president in 2017, Le Pen met Putin in Moscow only months before the election in France.

During last year’s presidential election debate when Le Pen was again running against Emmanuel Macron, he accused her of being too close to Russia. “You can’t correctly defend the interests of France on this subject, because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power,” the president said.

The RN has been able to pay back the Russian loan now because it won an unprecedented 88 seats in last year’s legislative elections, which roughly doubled the money it receives annually from the French public financing system to about €10mn. That result also made the RN the biggest opposition party in the National Assembly and propelled it, for the first time, from the fringes into the daily functioning and institutions of government.

Opinion polls regularly show Le Pen to be the second-most popular politician in the country after former prime minister Edouard Philippe, and she has said she will probably run for president for a fourth time in 2027. After two terms, Macron will not be allowed to run again.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon

Source: Financial Times

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