PARIS — French far-right leader Marine Le Pen ramped up attacks on rival François Fillon Sunday, accusing the conservative presidential candidate of “loving money” amid reports he accepted pricey gifts from a lawyer and paid his wife a generous wage using public money.
“You can never prevent someone who wants to get rich from trying to do it,” Le Pen told Le Parisien newspaper in an interview, referring to Fillon. “The scandals affecting Mr. Fillon show that this is a man who loves money. And that contradicts the image of himself that he wanted to broadcast.”
Le Pen — herself under investigation for misusing public funds in European Parliament — is widening her lead over the former prime minister Fillon ahead of the presidential election’s first round on April 23. Most polls show Le Pen breaking through to the election’s run-off round on May 7, but losing to former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron who is running as an independent.
Le Pen’s argument that Fillon is obsessed with money echoes her criticisms of Macron, whom she accused during a TV debate Monday of being beholden to private and corporate interests. But so far, Macron’s poll scores are inching upward while Fillon’s are falling fast amid repeated scandals and defections from high-level campaign operatives.
In a poll by BVA published Saturday, Fillon got just 17 percent ahead of the election’s first round, versus 26 percent for Macron and 25 percent for Le Pen. His poll support dropped off sharply in the wake of reports that he paid his wife, Penelope Fillon, nearly a million euros over eight years to work as his parliamentary assistant.
They fell further still after reports last week that he accepted gifts of expensive suits and watches from a lawyer and businessman. Le Pen’s own poll numbers are holding up despite her refusal to speak to investigators about alleged misuse of funds to pay assistants at the European Parliament.
In an attempt to fight back, Fillon is going on the offensive against what he calls a government-directed plot to bring him down. On Thursday, he used a live TV appearance to accuse French President François Hollande of having orchestrated leaks of classified information about him via a “shadow cabinet” he said was being run out of the Elysée presidential palace, citing a recently published book.
Despite a forceful denial from Hollande and one of the book’s authors, Fillon doubled down on his accusations during a campaign stop, saying he was “probably” being wiretapped. Arguing that polls were not to be trusted and that French voters would ignore a “media campaign” targeting him, Fillon said he could still win the presidency.
“I am going to win this election partly thanks to you,” the conservative candidate told journalists Saturday near Biarritz, in southwestern France. “Part of the press has decided on a scenario and refuses to let it go. But a big portion of French voters want a change of leadership, and Emmanuel Macron cannot bring that.”
On polls, he added: “I don’t believe in these polls for a second. I don’t say they are meaningless. But the political situation is so unstable that you cannot trust them at one given moment.”
Penelopegate: episode 35
While Fillon tried to shift focus away from his legal troubles, surveys suggested the French were taking the scandals seriously. An Ifop poll published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche (JDD) weekly newspaper showed that 63 percent of voters considered it “fair” that judicial cases were playing a “very important” role in the presidential campaign.
Only among supporters of the conservative Les Républicains party, to which Fillon belongs, did a majority of 68 percent agree with the statement that scandals were “preventing debates” on issues that matter.
Penelope Fillon is also under fire over another job contract she had at the Revue des Deux Mondes, a monthly literary and cultural affairs journal run by a friend of her husband.
While she was paid for nearly a year as a full-time employee, documents cited by Le Monde seemingly showed that she had reported just 14 hours of weekly work in the spring of 2012. In a raid on Fillon’s parliament office, investigators found a draft version of the same hourly report on which 30 hours of work were reported — prompting prosecutors to add an accusation of forgery to their existing claims against the Fillons.
At one point, Penelope Fillon was working full-time simultaneously at parliament and the Revue des Deux Mondes. Quizzed about the overlap, she reportedly told investigators that she was free to organize her work-time as she wanted. At the Revue des Deux Mondes, she said she was charged with preparing literary reports for Marc Ladreit de Lacherrière, who owns the journal but had never actually visited the offices.
Penelope Fillon quit both positions in November of 2013.
François Fillon, who is under formal investigation for misuse of public funds, denies any wrongdoing, including over the forgery allegation.