European Parliament lifts immunity from French far-right leader over gruesome tweets

France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is under police investigation after publishing uncensored photographs of victims of Islamic State on her Twitter account.

Le Pen is tipped to win the first vote in the two-round presidential election this spring. As a member of the European Parliament, she had enjoyed immunity from prosecution.

But on Thursday, the Parliament revoked that protection at the request of French investigators who are pursuing Le Pen under a law that bans the distribution of violent images that incite or promote terrorism.

In December 2015, Le Pen tweeted the images in an angry riposte to a French journalist who had compared the party she leads, the National Front, to the militant group, known in France by its Arabic name, Daesh.

“THIS is Daesh,” Le Pen wrote when she posted images of the executions of American journalist James Foley, who was decapitated, and a Jordanian air force pilot, who was caged and burned to death.

At the time, Foley’s family expressed its disapproval in a statement reported in the French press: “We are profoundly shocked by the use of Jim for Le Pen’s political benefit, and we hope the photograph of our son, as well as the two other explicit images, will be immediately withdrawn.”

Le Pen, 48, took down the picture after the family contacted her, saying she had not known it was Foley in the image. “I only knew this morning when his family asked me to withdraw it. Of course, I did so,” she told French journalists at the time.

Le Pen faces three years in prison and up to a $78,760 fine if convicted. But the case is not expected to be heard before the presidential election, the first round of which is April 23, followed by a second round two weeks later.

She is also under investigation in France for allegations that she used European Parliament funds for parliamentary assistants to pay her personal bodyguard and another party staffer. The European Parliament is fining Le Pen by withholding half of her parliamentary salary as well as freezing her allowances and expenses.

Members of the European Parliament enjoy immunity from prosecution in the name of free speech, but this right can be removed by lawmakers.

National Front Vice President Florian Philippot defended her tweeting of the pictures. “Showing and naming the horror of Islamism allows us to fight it,” he told Reuters this week before the vote to rescind her immunity.

The decision is another twist in a French presidential campaign already beset by political scandals.

The conservative candidate François Fillon, the clear front-runner for the presidency when he was selected as the candidate of the opposition Republicans in November, has been mired in a police investigation over possible misuse of government funds.

Fillon, 62, is accused of using taxpayers’ money to pay his wife and two eldest children for jobs they never held. The newspaper Le Canard Enchaine alleges that Fillon’s British-born wife Penelope was paid more than $800,000 over more than a decade as a parliamentary assistant, but that she had no parliamentary pass or office. 

Fillon denies any wrongdoing, but on Wednesday he was summoned to appear before three judges on March 15 — two days before the deadline for the official declaration of presidential candidates — to determine whether he will be formally placed under investigation.

His popularity has plummeted to below that of Le Pen and the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former Socialist government minister and banker.

Fillon came out fighting Wednesday, saying he would continue to campaign and let the French people decide, but suffered several high-profile defections from his campaign team.

In January, when the so-called fake jobs scandal broke, Fillon said he would withdraw from the presidential race if he were placed under investigation. He has since abandoned that stance, accusing President Francois Hollande’s current Socialist government, the French media and judges for being biased and carrying out what he described at a news conference Wednesday as a “political assassination.”

Willsher is a special correspondent.


UPDATES:

2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with background on French politics.

This article was originally published at 11:10 a.m.

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