Download our news and weather apps

Evidence mounts against French presidential frontrunner in ‘Penelopegate’ scandal

Right-wing candidate for the upcoming presidential election Francois Fillon (L) and Bordeaux’s mayor Alain Juppe (R) walks toward a restaurant, on January 25, 2017 in Bordeaux, as part of Fillon’s campaign visit. ( GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)

‘These Attacks Reinforce Me’

Francois Fillon, France’s former prime minister and a frontrunner in the country’s fast-approaching presidential election, has said he will continue his campaign despite an official investigation into accusations that, while he was a lawmaker, he paid his wife for years for doing a “fake job”.

The damning allegations, published Wednesday in Le Canard Enchaîné, a French satirical weekly, claim that the center-right politician paid his wife, Penelope Fillon, almost $650,000 in public funds to work as a parliamentary assistant.

But Mrs. Fillon wasn’t doing any work, the report suggests: investigators reportedly discovered this week that she did not even have an entry badge to his office in the French Parliament. The probe has since expanded because Fillon admitted that two of his children were also paid more than $90,000 for “legal work,” though it’s been reported that they were still in law school at the time.

French members of Parliament can (and do) frequently hire family members, but the employment must be for genuine work. For Fillion, who has campaigned ardently against corruption, the suggestion that his wife was illegally paid from the public purse betrays the righteous image he’s constructed.

Fillon has denied wrongdoing, and said the claims were an “institutional coup” engineered by political opponents.

“Those who have thought of reaching me must be certain of my determination,” he Thursday. “Not only will I be a candidate in the presidential election, but these attacks reinforce me.”

But “Penelopegate” and the resulting probe have weakened his candidacy. A Tuesday poll showed that 76 percent of French voters were skeptical of his defense.

Fillon on Thursday refused to answer questions from the press regarding the scandal, and said he will exit the race if the embezzlement inquiry proves he was involved in illicit activity.

If Fillon Exits, Who Will Replace Him?

The scandal has not just made Fillon unattractive to voters, but to some in his party Les Républicains — which has promised to cut public spending by $116 billion, fortify the central government, and “conquer Islamic totalitarianism.” As the March 22 deadline to submit the name of their presidential candidate approaches, Les Républicains must decide soon if it will support Fillion or replace him.

Some party members have called on its leaders to find another candidate to ensure success in the first round of the election on April 23.

But over 4 million conservative voters turned out to the party’s primary in November, delivering Fillon an impressive mandate. His opponents in that primary, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, were so resoundingly rejected that French political experts are certain that Républicains leadership would not risk nominating any of them.

The stakes are high for the conservative party, which is grappling to unseat the current left-wing Socialist government while retaining a sizeable lead over the far-right National Front, headed by Marine Le Pen. Some fear “Penelopegate” has fortified Le Pen’s campaign.

Despite Penelopegate, Le Pen Likely To Lose  

Many political experts are not convinced the scandal’s fallout will hand Le Pen and National Front the presidency just yet. The party is unlikely to win the presidency, it’s argued, because it  struggles to attract key political allies.

“The National Front is an outcast in French politics,” said Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the nonprofit Jean Jaurès Foundation. “It has never been part of any coalition, and no other political party wants to get into a coalition agreement with the National Front.”

“Even if Marine Le Pen is strong on the first ballot,” Camus added, “she will not have a majority in the second one.”

For Camus, co-author of the book Far-Right Politics in Europe, Fillon’s failure could leave an opening for centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron to emerge victorious.

Macron, who was economy minister until last month when he resigned to launch a presidential bid, is the darling of dissatisfied social democrats. His quiet rise to prominence mirrors the 2016 presidential campaign of independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He too has called for a “democratic revolution” to stop “vested interests” in government. Since  “Penelopegate” broke, he has edged ahead of Fillon in the polls.