By NICHOLAS VINOCUR
Former PM’s remark that politicians facing serious investigation shouldn’t run for office has come back to haunt him.
According to a poll carried out since the scandal broke, 61 percent of French voters have a “negative” or “very negative” view of the conservative former prime minister, while the proportion of “positive views” of Fillon plummeted to 39 percent from 54 percent before “Penelopegate” became top news.
Fillon, who until recently was the hands-down favorite to win May’s presidential election, is struggling to draw a line under the scandal. On Thursday, he was placed under preliminary investigation on suspicion that he may have abused public funds by paying his wife €500,000 over eight years for a parliament job that she did not actually do.
Later the same day, he tried to fight back against the allegations in a prime time TV interview, saying he had provided evidence to a financial prosecutor proving that his wife, Penelope, had indeed carried out work for which she was paid. “She has edited my speeches, stood in for me at events when I couldn’t be there, done newspaper reviews,” said Fillon, who did not deny having paid his British wife.
But his statement did not lift the black cloud that has descended over Fillon’s campaign.
Worse, even Fillon’s half-hearted attempts at transparency during that interview are back-firing. He volunteered on TF1 the fact that he had once employed on specific missions two of his children, “who were lawyers,” when he was a French senator (in the years before he became prime minister in 2007).
The next day, the daily Libération noted that the two children, Marie and Charles, were only students at the time and only became lawyers later. Furthermore, they specialized in areas that have little to do with the usual concerns of a French MP.
So Fillon now faces questions on what the”missions” were, and how much he paid his student children.
During his primary campaign, the 62-year-old repeatedly said politicians facing serious investigations should not run for office. At the time, Fillon’s remark was targeted at former president Nicolas Sarkozy, a rival for the center-right nomination who was under formal investigation.
Not all preliminary investigations — an early evidence-gathering phase of the French judicial system — lead to formal investigations. But they can drag on for months with evidence frequently leaked to the press, a serious liability for Fillon.
Adding to his troubles, a journalist who carried out research for a biography on Fillon, and met with members of his family including his wife, claimed on Twitter that she had been threatened by members of a certain political campaign who left messages on her phone.
“To the political team that is threatening me on my voicemail, I hate threats and I do not give in to pressure. That’s a first warning,” tweeted Christine Kelly, whose biography “Le secret et l’ambition” (“The Secret and the ambition”) was published in 2007.
With the scandal just three days old, Odoxa’s poll is the first sign that Penelopegate is having an impact on the public view of Fillon, so far the favorite for the presidency. It also highlighted widespread frustration with the cozy practice of hiring spouses in parliament, with 76 percent of respondents saying they would like to see the practice banned.
Standing by to reap the benefits of Fillon’s troubles are his two main rivals for the presidency: National Front chief Marine Le Pen, and former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who is running as an independent on a center-left, pro-European platform.
Le Pen, herself under investigation over suspicions that she misused assistants at the European Parliament, has pointedly avoided commenting on Fillon’s affairs, except once when she called the original report in Le Canard Enchainé a “stink bomb.” But the scandal’s subtext — that a former prime minister was free to direct public money toward his own wife without scrutiny — plays directly into her arguments that France’s elites are corrupt and detached from the problems of regular people.
Macron, who of late has been catching up to Fillon in polls, did not comment on the report.
However, with his liberal economic views and centrist positioning, Macron is poised to pick up middle-ground conservatives who were drawn to Fillon thanks to his stance on fiscal prudence. The 39-year-old former Rothschilds investment banker has also sold himself as an “anti-system” candidate, with the implication that he is not part of the establishment clique that made Fillon’s payments possible.
An Ipsos-Steria poll conducted before Penelopegate put Macron in third place behind Fillon and Le Pen, with 17-21 percent of the vote ahead of the election’s first round, depending on which other candidates participate.
Macron’s campaign has been gathering momentum amid weak interest in a left-wing primary election whose final round is on Sunday.
In that contest, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his ex-education minister, Benoît Hamon, are vying for a left-wing presidential nomination, with the latter expected to win. Both Valls and Hamon have called for “greater transparency” in public life since Penelopegate broke.
Whoever wins is not expected to make it past the first round of the presidential election.