French prosecutors have ordered far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen to stand trial over claims she used EU funds to finance party activities in France.
Former presidential candidate Le Pen will be joined by 26 other members of the National Rally (RN) party – formerly called the National Front – in the dock in March
All are accused of using EU parliamentary funds to pay for assistants who in fact worked for the RN.
Le Pen, who stepped down as an MEP in 2017 after her election to the French parliament, has denied the claims.
The charges carry sentences of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to double the alleged funds embezzled.
If convicted, the court could also declare Le Pen ineligible for office for up to 10 years – essentially thwarting her plan to make a fourth run for the French presidency.
'Embezzlement and collusion in fraud'
The fake jobs inquiry began in 2015, with prosecutors alleging that starting in 2004, National Front eurodeputies including Le Pen took part in the fake jobs scheme.
Paris financial judges, to whom the investigations were entrusted, suspect that her party "concertedly and deliberately" set up a "system of misappropriation" of the payments, €21,000 per month, allocated by the European Union to each MP to pay for parliamentary assistants.
The accused include Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the co-founder of what became France's most successful far-right party.
The party itself, as a legal entity, is suspected of receiving illicit funds, and of complicity in fraud.
Marine Le Pen was runner-up to Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 and 2022 presidential elections and could have another go in 2027.
She was president of her party until 2021, and now leads its parliamentary group.
The charges against her are embezzlement and collusion in fraud.
According to the financial judges in charge of the investigation, she was "one of the main people responsible for the system" which was designed in particular to "relieve the National Front's finances".
Her far-right party has insisted that Marine Le Pen had not committed any offence and said it "contested the accusations made against our MEPs and parliamentary assistants".
Le Pen's lawyer, Rodolphe Bosselut, said in a statement that the decision to refer the case to trial "unfortunately comes as no surprise".
Eleven of those facing charges have served as members of the European Parliament, 12 others were their parliamentary assistants and four were employees of the far-right party and will face trial.
The trial is due to take place in October and November 2024, four months after the European elections.
The decision to go to trial was taken by two investigating magistrates from France's financial crimes prosecuting unit.
The European Parliament estimated in 2018 that €6.8 million had been embezzled from 2009 to 2017.