Once known for his clean image, he has been engulfed by a scandalby Jim Wolfreys / February 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
After winning the nomination as presidential candidate for the mainstream right Les Républicains party last November, it seemed that all François Fillon had to do was to wait for the campaign to end on 7th May. According to the polls he would easily see off the challenge from Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) in the second round. Then he could begin dealing with the huge sums being wasted on public sector jobs and social security and put an end to the “utopian” 35 hour week.
Fillon’s primary victory over longstanding adversaries Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy was largely attributed to his upright image. Juppé already had a criminal conviction for his role in an illegal party funding operation, while the net appeared to be closing in on Sarkozy for his part in an even bigger scandal. Fillon had repeatedly underlined the need for absolute probity in a presidential candidate, directing a well-aimed put-down at his rivals: “Can you imagine De Gaulle being put under investigation?”
He has since been engulfed by controversy following revelations by the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné that his wife Penelope was paid over €800,000 as parliamentary assistant to himself and another deputy, Marc Joulaud, over a 15 year period. Two of the Fillons’ children were also employed by their father from the public purse, to the tune of €84,000.
No hard evidence has yet come to light about what Penelope Fillon did to justify her salary. She allegedly never owned a card to gain access to the National Assembly and there seems to be no written record of five years’ worth of meetings with Joulaud. Nor is there much trace of her having a substantial role at the monthly cultural magazine Revue des Deux Mondes, owned by François Fillon’s friend, the billionaire Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière. Her gross earnings at the publication came to about €100,000 in barely a year and a half. The former editor confessed to never having met her or seen her at the publication’s offices. Most damning of all perhaps was the rediscovery of an interview she had given to the Daily Telegraph in 2007. Discussing her relationship with François, she revealed that she had “never been actually his assistant or anything like that.”
François Fillon has responded to the allegations with anger. His accusers were guilty of misogyny, targeting his wife who had every right to work for him. He was the victim of a conspiracy by shadowy forces, based on slurs. His defence has presented the operation to discredit him as an attack by “the system” on “the French people.” This kind of language, borrowed from the Front National, highlights Fillon’s predicament. As a former prime minister he was never going to be a plausible “anti-system” figure. He was nevertheless supposed to be Mr Clean, the voice of moral, establishment authority. Over recent decades corruption scandals have become a persistent feature of French politics, damaging both major parties. Only last month a leading Les Républicains politician, Claude Guéant, was given a prison sentence for his part in a lucrative scam involving cash bonus payments at the interior ministry. Aside from personal enrichment, increased competition both between and within parties, as challengers vie for a shot at the role of president, has given rise to underhand means of raising funds, despite measures to stamp them out.
The present affair’s similarities with other episodes involving allegedly “fictitious posts” are hampering Fillon’s attempts to front it out. At a specially convened press conference on 6th February he apologised for having employed family members, acknowledging that what was once common practice now created mistrust, but his bullish performance did not sway many doubters. One of his claims, that Kim Willsher, who conducted the interview with his wife in 2007, had been “shocked” at the way Penelope’s remarks had been “taken out of context” in a recent documentary, was immediately denied by the journalist. His dogged defence in the face of a sustained media spotlight has too many echoes of the arrogant stand of colleagues who have attempted to face down allegations in the past, from Juppé to former president Chirac, convicted on corruption charges and given a suspended sentence in 2011.
Fillon has asked his colleagues to stand by him until the results of the preliminary investigation are revealed. His poll ratings have dipped, although not dramatically, and some supporters are openly questioning whether he should carry on. Last weekend his party printed 3m leaflets calling for an end to the “manhunt” against him, an unprecedented step for a presidential hopeful. The risk for the right is that in persevering with Fillon the campaign will continue to be dominated by the scandal, giving ground to Le Pen. The Front National has been the subject of a controversy of its own, involving irregular payments to party members from European Parliament coffers. But the FN, unlike Fillon, is perceived as an outsider to the system. The party’s rise so far indicates that the more corrupt the establishment appears, the greater the lure posed by such alternatives, whatever the skeletons in their closet.