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France's Le Pen defiant as EU seeks return of misspent money

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France’s far-right candidate for president, Marine Le Pen, was set to lose 7,000 euros a month from her European Parliament earnings from Wednesday after defying a demand to repay nearly 300,000 euros of EU funds an investigation says she misspent.

Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party leader and candidate for the French 2017 presidential election, attends a news conference in Paris, France, Janaury 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

The parliament concluded that, in her role as French National Front leader, Le Pen had during the 2011-12 legislature paid party staff with the funds, which EU rules say should be used only to pay EU lawmakers’ assistants.

Le Pen, locked in an increasingly tight three-way race to succeed Francois Hollande this spring, said she would not “submit to persecution” by paying the money back.

In a statement texted to Reuters, she described the demand as “a unilateral decision taken by political opponents... without proof and without waiting for a judgement from the court action I have started.”

EU authorities gave Le Pen a midnight deadline to return the money.

Failure to do that will see her monthly EU parliamentary salary cut in half to around 3,000 euros from February and she will also lose other allowances. In total around 7,000 euros will be taken from her EU payment slip every month, an EU official said.

Five other National Front European lawmakers including Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, had previously seen their EU payments cut because of misused money that was not reimbursed, the EU official said.

Several EU lawmakers from other political groupings have also been investigated for expenses that were not in line with EU rules. Most have agreed to reimburse misspent money.

In an earlier posting on Twitter, Le Pen said the former president of the European Parliament, socialist Martin Schulz, had started the procedure to claw back the money.

EU officials said it was started by OLAF, the agency that investigates allegations of fraud against the EU budget. OLAF had also taken the case against Le Pen to French courts which would decide whether other sanctions were warranted.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Ingrid Melander and Gilbert Reilhac; editing by John Stonestreet