Corruption, Political Drama, & Fake News in the French Presidential Election On Site w/Nathan Richmond
The French presidential election is a mere 50 or so days away and the twists and turns in this year’s election continue to stun observers.
François Fillon appeared easily on track to win the French presidency after his surprise victory in the center-right primary in November 2016, besting former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister and current Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé.
Fillon’s campaign became embattled in late January 2017; however, when the satirical, investigative newspaper, Le Canard enchainé, revealed that Fillon’s wife, Penelope Fillon, was paid between €800,000 and €1,000,000 for work that she supposedly did as Fillon’s legislative assistant.
Fillon claimed—and continues to claim—that the payments were legitimate, even though no one can find any trace of any work that she supposedly did. She did not have a legislative security pass (and therefore could not enter the National Assembly), nor a National Assembly email address.
Mrs. Fillon claimed in an interview with the British media a few years ago (she is Welsh by birth) that she did not work. In order to earn that much, she would have had to have been paid between two and three times what other legislative assistants earn.
After the story broke Fillon repeatedly attacked the media and stated that if he became the subject of a formal judicial investigation, he would quit the presidential race. After some preliminary investigative work, the prosecutors opened a formal investigation.
Fillon reversed himself saying that he would not drop out. He angrily denounced the events as a "media political assassination."
On March 1st, Fillon canceled a scheduled appearance at the Paris Agricultural Exhibition, a must for all candidates and instead scheduled a news conference. Journalists were certain Fillon would announce he was quitting the campaign and speculated about how his party, Les Republicains (LR), would fill his candidacy.
Apparently, when France implemented the primary system, new this election cycle, an import from the U.S., they made no provisions for how to deal with a candidate who withdraws.
Would they hold a new primary? Give the nomination to the second-place primary finisher, Alain Juppé? (Juppé stated he was not interested). Let the party leaders hand-pick their new candidate? Anything seemed possible, but if a change was to occur, it would have to happen quickly because the deadline for candidates to file was rapidly approaching.
Instead of withdrawing, Fillon stunned the party, and the media, by vowing to fight on. Then, in the last two days, one by one his senior campaign staff, and party leaders, have been deserting him and the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) party which usually has close ties to the LR party also decided to sever their links to Fillon and no longer support his candidacy.
Meanwhile, 71-year-old Juppé has apparently reversed himself and announced that he is ready if the party wants him to be their candidate.
At this point it is unclear if Fillon will continue his quest for the presidency. Perhaps he will as the two front-runners, Marine LePen and Emmanuel Macron, also may stumble in the weeks ahead.
LePen already seems to be doing so, having just become embroiled in a financial scandal of her own. She is an elected member of the European Parliament and is accused of misappropriating funds provided for her legislative staff, diverting them instead to paying for National Front (FN) party work and a bodyguard.
LePen declined a “request” from the prosecutor’s office to “discuss” the matter, citing her legislative immunity and claimed that it was a transparent attempt to sabotage her campaign. Recently the EU Parliament stripped her of immunity, so she will indeed have a rendezvous with prosecutors.
All of these events seem to strengthen the chances of Macron who just received the endorsement of François Beyrou, the leader of the Modern Democrats (MoDems), himself a perennial presidential candidate who had just a few weeks ago denounced Maron’s candidacy.
Macron is not without his problems, though as he struggles to combat “fake news” stories circulated, allegedly by the Kremlin, as they try to derail his campaign in favor of either Fillon or LePen, both of whom spoke admiringly of Putin (a la Trump). One such story alleged that Macron had a secret gay life, which he angrily denied.
With nearly two months to go until the first round, we are likely to see more twists and turns in the run up to this year’s French presidential election.
Nathan Richmond is Professor of Government at Utica College and currently resides in Southern France.