Thursday 21 September 2017

Macron denies tax haven claim as French launch fake news probe

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen pose prior to the start of a live prime-time debate
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen pose prior to the start of a live prime-time debate
French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron Photo: Reuters
French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. (AP/Thibault Camus)

Adrian Croft in Paris

The French prosecutor's office launched an inquiry yesterday into suspicions of fake news being spread to influence Sunday's presidential vote after far-right leader Marine Le Pen implied her rival Emmanuel Macron held an offshore account.

Mr Macron, favourite to win the presidency, denied allegations of using a foreign tax haven that were made on social media and referred to by Ms Le Pen in an ill-tempered televised debate with him on Wednesday night. He accused her of spreading lies.

After Mr Macron lodged a legal complaint over the allegations, a judicial source said the prosecutor's office was investigating suspicions that fake news had been intentionally circulated with the aim of swaying Sunday's voting.

Opinion polls show Mr Macron, a centrist, has roughly a 20 point lead over Ms Le Pen. They see him firmly on course to win after what was widely seen as his solid performance in Wednesday's fractious face-to-face.

French shares and bonds and the euro performed strongly yesterday, pointing to relief on financial markets that Ms Le Pen had not gained ground with her pledges to quit the euro, hold a referendum on leaving the EU, and print money to finance higher state spending.

It was at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour debate, watched by 15 million people, that the National Front veteran insinuated that Mr Macron might be concealing funds in a foreign tax account.

"I've never had an account in any tax haven," Mr Macron told France Inter radio yesterday. "Le Pen is behind this. She has an internet army mobilising."

He said she had allies spreading "false information and lies" who were "in certain cases linked to Russian interests".

Ms Le Pen told BFM TV yesterday that she had no proof Mr Macron had an offshore account, but did not want undisclosed funds to come to light when it was too late.

Mr Macron's party has previously complained that his campaign had been the target of "fake news" put out by Russian media, as well as internet attacks on its databases.

That prompted a warning by the French government in February that it would not accept interference by Russia or any other state in the election.

According to a snap poll by Elabe for BFMTV, 63pc of viewers found Mr Macron the more convincing of the two candidates in Wednesday's debate, reinforcing his status as favourite to win the Elysée.

A second poll by Harris Interactive said 42pc of people found him more convincing in the debate, during which the candidates traded barbs over the economy, the euro and how to combat terrorism.

Twenty six per cent found Ms Le Pen more convincing, while 31pc chose neither candidate, Harris said.

An OpinionWay survey carried out before the debate showed Mr Macron widening his lead over Ms Le Pen to 61pc to 39pc.

Ms Le Pen's proposal to bring back the franc while replacing the euro with another, looser type of cooperation in the form of an ECU basket of currencies prompted an unusual foray into politics by French central bank governor Francois Villeroy de Galhau.

"I hear proposals for a dual currency with the return of a national currency in parallel to a European currency. I must say that such suggestions would put confidence in the currency in danger," he said at a conference.

A small group of protesters threw eggs at Ms Le Pen as she arrived for a campaign event in Brittany yesterday, shouting "Out with the Fascists!".

Former US president Barack Obama endorsed Mr Macron in a video message released by Mr Macron's party yesterday, praising him for appealing "to people's hopes and not their fears".

Campaigning on an anti-EU, anti-globalisation platform, Ms Le Pen has sought to portray Mr Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister, as an out-of-touch member of an elite responsible for France's ills, including unemployment of about 10pc, low growth and a two-year spate of Islamist violence.

Mr Macron has promised to stimulate growth with training programmes and a relaxation of labour laws, while reducing state expenditure.

Meanwhile, Ms Le Pen's father Jean-Marie was critical of his daughter's TV performance, saying most viewers would probably have found the first part of the debate incomprehensible.

"That may have benefited Emmanuel Macron, but it didn't work to the advantage of Marine Le Pen, who perhaps lacked gravitas," the founder of the National Front told RTL radio.

Official campaigning must end at midnight today before voters go to the polls on Sunday.

Irish Independent

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