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Film and real-life legal woes fall on France's far right

Associated Press logo Associated Press 7/01/2017 By ELAINE GANLEY, Associated Press
Far-right leader and candidate for next spring presidential elections Marine le Pen, gestures as she delivers her New Year's address to the media in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. French far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is cheering Ford Motor Co.'s decision to shift investment from Mexico to the U.S., calling it a victory for the protectionist policies she champions. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)(AP Photo/Michel Euler) © The Associated Press Far-right leader and candidate for next spring presidential elections Marine le Pen, gestures as she delivers her New Year's address to the media in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017. French far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is cheering Ford Motor Co.'s decision to shift investment from Mexico to the U.S., calling it a victory for the protectionist policies she champions. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

PARIS — Far-right leader Marine Le Pen says she is "ready, resolute, organized" for France's presidential election. But some things are spinning out of her carefully controlled orbit, like a movie that presents an unflattering picture and real-life legal problems.

The timing is so bad — just months before the spring contest — that Le Pen, a leading candidate, smells a rat. The National Front party president rails at a system she wants to break, but claims is out to break her. She vows it won't.

"I can only say we will defend ourselves with all our means, but it's not a democratic way of functioning," Le Pen said, blasting the European Union Parliament in which she serves as a deputy and French prosecutors probing her party.

Le Pen spent years working to detoxify the image of her anti-immigration party, a pariah in French politics before she took it over in 2011 from her father, founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was convicted multiple times of racism and anti-Semitism.

But the National Front's behind-the-scenes maneuvering to beef up its bank account has put it in the crosshairs of the law. Two top party officials and the party itself have been ordered to trial over allegedly hidden financing.

A movie set to open on Feb. 22 — two months before the first round of the election that ends with a runoff May 7 — also has gotten under the skin of party officials and fed what some view as their persecution complex.

National Front officials gasped when the trailer for the film, titled "Chez Nous" ("In Our Land"), appeared a week ago, There was little doubt the fictional far-right party in the story line was a thinly disguised version of their party.

Cries of "On est chez nous" ("We are in our land") are a hallmark of National Front rallies. The movie is set in a small northern town much like Henin-Beaumont, Le Pen's northern seat of power. The actress who plays the party's leader is blonde, like Le Pen.

"Obviously, this is a film to combat the National Front, its voters, its officials, its militants, its candidates," Le Pen said Friday during a meeting with the Anglo-American Press Association.

The movie by Belgian director Lucas Belvaux explores the dynamics of joining a far-right party. Belvaux told Europe 1 radio he was interested in exploring how bonds of loyalty are created and that it was up to viewers to judge if the film captures the National Front.

While dismissing "Chez Nous" as "a propaganda film hostile to the National Front," party Secretary-General, Nicolas Bay said his main objection was what he said was public funding for the movie; a small portion of the film's budget came from a French state-owned TV station.

"I think above all this film poses a problem of democratic functioning in our country," Bay said.

For Le Pen, the same might be said of her knot of legal travails.

The French justice system has been investigating campaign financing arrangements for all elections since Le Pen became the National Front's leader, from the 2012 presidential race to regional elections a year ago.

In a new legal blow, it was revealed last week that an unrelated investigation by French authorities concerning EU parliamentary aides that began nearly two years ago was pushed up a notch to a judicial inquiry.

"I think these are the old French methods — totally reprehensible, totally objectionable — when political powers instrumentalize the justice system to weigh on an election," Le Pen told the Associated Press, noting the timing of the latest probe.

After an inquiry by Europe's anti-fraud unit, the European Parliament, a pulpit for Le Pen, is itself trying to recover hundreds of thousands of euros in salaries paid to 19 National Front legislative aides for maintaining outside political activities. The aides include Le Pen's body guard and cabinet director.

Le Pen claimed she has "proof of collusion" between the European anti-fraud office and the EU Parliament and plans to file a legal complaint. Her lawyer wasn't available to provide details.

Far-right specialist Jean-Yves Camus said Le Pen's legal travails may not diminish her appeal, at least to supporters.

"These are things that don't touch National Front voters," Camus said. "It doesn't cancel out other reasons (to back her) like immigration, terrorism, security, the economic crisis."

However, Le Pen is looking to capture new voters. That means appealing to the right and left to advance to the presidential runoff — and to set the stage for national legislative elections in June.

One thing is certain: she won't be using "Chez Nous" as free campaign publicity.

"No, I won't go see a film that I think will be a turkey," Le Pen said.

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