French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen received a € 10.7mn personal loan for her campaign from Hungary’s state-backed MKB Bank, whose largest shareholder is a close associate of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The loan was declared on a disclosure form that French candidates must file with the election regulator about their personal assets and debts, which was published online on Tuesday.
Unlike other French political parties, Le Pen’s National Rally has long had difficulty financing campaigns because French banks will not lend to it out of concerns over reputational risk. The party worked with the government mediator on credit last year to try to remedy the situation, but failed to secure a loan in France.
“It’s scandalous that French banks will not lend to us,” Thierry Mariani, a member of the European Parliament for the National Rally party, said last month. “We had to go abroad to find funds.”
According to two sources familiar with the matter, the decision to ask MKB to extend the loan to Le Pen came from Orban’s inner circle – signaling a high level of direct political influence at the bank. MKB has been about one-third state owned since a complex merger announced last year.
Asked about political influence over the decision, Orban’s spokesman Bertalan Havasi said: “That is fake news.” A bank spokesman declined to comment on the lending rationale.
The loan is listed on the disclosure form as having a term length of 16 months. Le Pen would probably be able to pay it back once her campaign costs are reimbursed by the state, which will occur as long as she clears 5 per cent of votes in the first round and files accounts with the regulator.
Gergely Gulyas, Orban’s chief of staff, was asked about the loan in February when French media reported that Le Pen had secured financing from a Hungarian bank.
“It is probably a good deal for any bank of the EU to issue a credit which it is guaranteed to recover soon,” Gulyas said. “The freedom of services is a fundamental right in the EU.”
The National Bank of Hungary, which acts as the market regulator in Budapest, said a loan to a foreign political party or candidate would not contravene any local regulations. But several bankers said they saw the loan as problematic because of the political exposure.
Le Pen has long courted Orban and other populist or far-right leaders in Europe as they push their ideas about cutting immigration, protecting national identity, and opposing what they call power grabs by Brussels.
Le Pen has made multiple trips to Hungary in recent years, and met Orban in Madrid in January at a summit of far-right and populist parties. At her first big campaign rally in Reims last month, Orban appeared in a video message of support along with others like Italy’s Matteo Salvini and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders.
“Marine Le Pen is a battle-hardened warrior,” Orban said in the video. “I wish her good luck in this combat for France!”
In 2014, Le Pen’s party turned to banks in Russia ahead of regional elections for a € 9.4mn loan, some of which is still outstanding. In 2017 it used crowdfunding from supporters after banks closed its accounts in what Le Pen called a “banking fatwa”.
Orban, a nationalist who like Le Pen also faces elections in April, has helped strengthen Hungary’s banking sector, with a key role played by MKB owner Lorinc Meszaros, his childhood friend and the country’s richest tycoon.
Meszaros – a former pipe fitter who has openly attributed his rise to “God, good fortune and Viktor Orban” – controls a business empire that includes several banks, construction, tourism, energy and media companies in Hungary and central-eastern Europe.
He has relied heavily on state procurement. But fears over inadequate safeguards for EU-funded contracts has prompted Brussels to threaten Budapest with the suspension of funds.
While President Emmanuel Macron is favored to win a re-election in France’s two-round vote that begins April 10, Le Pen is well positioned to make the run-off against him, setting up a repeat of the 2017 election.
She is running second in the polls, with 16.6 per cent of the first round voting intentions, according to the Financial Times poll tracker, while her far-right rival Eric Zemmour is on 12.9 per cent, leftwing Jean-Luc Mélenchon on 12 per cent, and conservative Valérie Pécresse on 11.8 per cent.