Paris prosecutors said on Friday they were seeking to put far-right leader Marine Le Pen and 26 associates on trial over claims they used EU funds to finance party activities in France.
The fake jobs inquiry began in 2015 and hung over Le Pen as she sought the French presidency in 2017 and 2022, losing out both times to centrist Emmanuel Macron.
She and the others have been charged with embezzlement of public funds and collusion, accused of using parliamentary funds to pay for assistants who in fact worked for her National Rally party, formerly called the National Front.
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 would also declare Le Pen ineligible for office for up to 10 years – threatening her plan to make a fourth run for the French presidency in 2027.
Prosecutors allege that starting in 2004, National Front eurodeputies including Le Pen and her father, party co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, took part in the fake jobs scheme.
The EU Parliament estimated in 2018 that 6.8 million euros had been embezzled from 2009 to 2017.
In total, prosecutors want a trial for 11 eurodeputies, 12 of their parliamentary assistants and four party collaborators, while the RN party itself faces charges of concealing the wrongdoing.
"We contest this view, to us mistaken, of the work of opposition deputies and their assistants, work that is above all political," a RN official said on Friday.
On Thursday, Le Pen's lawyer said she had agreed to pay back the EU Parliament funds sought in the fraud case, following an administrative procedure to recover the money.
The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) had determined she owed 339,000 euros for illegally paying her party chief of staff Catherine Griset and bodyguard Thierry Legier with parliamentary funds.
Le Pen had refused to reimburse the money, prompting the EU to start docking her pay in her final months as an MEP.
She paid back almost 330,000 euros in July but the decision "does not in any way constitute explicit or implicit recognition of the European Parliament's claims", lawyer Rodolphe Bosselut said.
In a separate case, OLAF also alleges that around 600,000 euros of expense claims by Le Pen and three other eurodeputies actually financed party operations in France. (AFP)