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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers began on Wednesday a process to lift French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen's immunity over alleged misuse of EU funds, although they will not summon her before next week's run-off vote.
French judges had asked the European parliament to lift her immunity from prosecution as a member of the EU legislature to allow further investigation into allegations she misused the funds to pay for National Front party assistants.
The French request "has been forwarded to the legal affairs committee of the European parliament, which is in charge of these issues", the chairman of the legislature, Antonio Tajani, told lawmakers at the beginning of a formal sitting in Brussels.
This step marks the formal beginning of the procedure.
Le Pen, who staunchly opposes the EU, is campaigning for the May 7 run-off, after coming second at Sunday's first round.
She has denounced legal proceedings against her as political interference.
Tajani said that a procedure was also launched over lifting the immunity of another member of the National Front, Marie-Christine Boutonnet, for a similar case of alleged misuse of EU funds.
In addition to the case over misused EU funds, the parliament is also assessing whether to strip Le Pen of her immunity for a separate investigation on defamation.
Parliament officials said a hearing on her pending cases, initially pencilled for next week, was postponed due to the heavy legislative agenda of the legal affairs committee, which oversees cases of immunity suspension. Le Pen could have decided not to attend.
It takes usually several months for the parliament to decide on immunity waivers. Most cases have resulted in the lawmakers under investigation being stripped of their immunity.
The EU legislature removed Le Pen's immunity in March in relation to another French investigation over her posting of pictures of Islamic State violence on social media, an offence that in France can carry a penalty of three years in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros ($81,700).
EU lawmakers have also already sanctioned Le Pen for misspending EU funds. They want her to reimburse 300,000 euros ($330,000). Since February, her monthly salary as an EU lawmaker has been cut by half to about 3,000 euros and other allowances have been withdrawn after she refused to pay.
Editing by Louise Ireland