In France, Fillon against All Odds

They must be too a sign of the times - presidential races turning to circuses. The latest twist in the French campaign is the investigation of the leading candidate, former Premier François Fillon, prompted by allegations that he paid his wife for years for a fake parliamentary assistant job.

When the satirical weekly ‘Canard Enchaîné’ dropped its bombshell on François Fillon at the end of January, alleging that between 1998 and 2007 he had remunerated his British-born wife Penelope and two of their five children for fictional jobs, the financial prosecutor lost no time. Within 24 hours, a probe was launched and Fillon’s office raided.

Lawmakers are entitled to employ family members, but the ‘Canard’ said there was no evidence of actual work.

Despite Fillon’s protestations that his wife Penelope and their children did, in fact, work and all tax returns were duly filed, the media gleefully seized on the story, which nearly monopolized their air time. Viewers were force-fed daily rations of the saga, so much so that even Fillon’s greatest champions began to doubt his honesty.

Many were convinced that the Penelopegate was created to force Fillon, the conservative candidate, out of the presidential race. This would leave the field open to Emmanuel Macron, the socialist candidate of the establishment.

In the final weeks before the commencement of the primary, Macron had resigned his ministerial post in the socialist government of Manuel Valls to run as an independent candidate on a platform he described as "liberal, or neoliberal, but definitely not socialist." While he was initially lagging in the polls behind Fillon, he has sprinted ahead and now leaves him far behind. The populist ‘National Front’ party of Marine Le Pen continues to rank second.

The embattled Fillon remained steadfast as each passing day brought more bad news. His house was searched and he was summoned to appear before the examining magistrates on March 15 - two days before the electoral deadline of 500 requisite sponsorships. The dreadful timing reinforced the impression that Fillon was targeted for political assassination.

His constituents started to jump ship. The first to bolt were former supporters of his center-right rival, Alain Juppé, who had transferred their votes to him after his landslide victory over Juppé in the primary.

Juppé who had initially remained silent, let it be known through his entourage on Friday that he could be persuaded to enter the race again if Fillon withdrew his candidacy. Juppé proved to be a weak candidate in the primary, where he lost to Fillon who had scored twice as many votes. He also was no stranger to prosecution, having been sentenced in 2004 to a suspended 14-month prison term and to one year of political ineligibility in a case of…fictitious jobs at the Paris City Hall.

To better pave the way for Macron, and guard against the victory of the populist candidate, a similar accusation was filed a few days later against Marine Le Pen.

Like Fillon, Le Pen was summoned to appear before the financial magistrates. But unlike him, she refused to comply until the electoral process was over.

The establishment was obviously trying to present its candidate, Macron, as the only one with clean hands, as the “White Horse” of the French people. But was he?

This former tax inspector had taken a timely ‘sabbatical’ from public service to do a stint as an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque in 2008, a bank that serves as one of the antechambers of power at the heart of the French establishment.

His docility - perhaps due to his young age - brought him the ultimate distinction: first to become an associate, and then a managing partner.

At only 39, he was already a millionaire after managing a merger acquisition on behalf of Nestlé and Pfizer for more than 11 billion Swiss francs. But he ‘forgot’ to pay his wealth tax - ‘renovating’ his wife’s house so that his earnings would remain below EUR1.3 million. This is the threshold at which France's notorious 'wealth tax' is triggered. Supreme irony, the story was broken a few years ago by the same ‘Canard Enchaîné’ which is now going after François Fillon.

In 2012, Macron was appointed ‘Deputy Secretary-General of the Presidency of the Republic’.

His path just kept moving upward. In June 2014, the Elysée (this is the French equivalent of the White House) announced that Macron was to leave the office of François Hollande, where he concurrently held the positions of  ‘Economic and Financial Advisor ‘and ‘Deputy Secretary-General of the Elysée,’ to be appointed Minister of Economy and Industry. He was then barely 36 years old.

Macron has refused to reveal the names of his campaign funders, claiming it would be a “breach of confidence”.

It is however clear that he has the backing of many of the heavy hitters in large corporations. With a program that can be described as flimsy at best, he seems little more than a media bubble, albeit a big one in a country where nine billionaires own almost all media outlets, giving financial circles unprecedented control over mainstream media.

Marine Le Pen denounced the relationship between Macron and the corporate world in a TV interview yesterday on BFMTV, the media outlet owned by Patrick Drahi, a Moroccan-born multibillionaire media mogul with French and Israeli citizenship who lives in Switzerland.

Macron is rumored to be behind the ‘coup’ staged against Fillon. Insider information made the rounds in early February that the ‘dossier’ relating to Penelope Fillon’s employment came from the Ministry of Finance and was handed to the Canard by a close friend of Macron who owes him his current post at the Elysée. It was a typical case of 'you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’  A letter denouncing the scam was sent to the Canard by a former leader of the French Patrol, an elite unit of the French air force comparable to the Blue Angels.

The odds were certainly stacked against Fillon.

Pressured by his own political family to let go and give them a chance to recover; faced with rearguard attacks from a left clinging to power; placed under investigation by a justice system seemingly complicit with the political and media establishment, he decided to fight back and first, to maintain his speaking engagements in the campaign.

At a political rally in Nîmes, he was slapped with more bad news just as he was entering the hall, but he bit the bullet and his opening words were “My friends, it is a fighter who stands before you."

He said that the attacks against him would not have been so fierce had his program been more bland. There was something about his candidature and people’s support that “went against the grain of political correctness” and that’s why the “grindstone and the rumor mill” were being used against him 24/7.

He vowed not to back down and betray those who counted on him to get their country back. He also would not stand to see his legitimacy, conferred on him by his overwhelming victory in the primary, held hostage to an arbitrary judicial timeline.

He invited attendees and fans to mobilize in a show of support on Sunday, March 5, at Place du Trocadéro in Paris. It was organized by his teams under the banner: ‘The People of the Right Fight Back.'

Its stated aim was to counter the judicial ‘coup,’ which was trying to “confiscate” the presidential election through an anti-Fillon manhunt, and to get “the street” to confirm Fillon’s legitimacy.

The news of the rally enraged President François Hollande who, from the Elysee Palace, deplored “this kind of questioning by the street of France’s laws, institutions, and justice system during an investigation.”

The socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, joined Hollande’s appeal and called for restraint and “dignity."  After the announcement of the rally, there were more defections - including Fillon’s campaign manager and spokesman, both uneasy about his showdown with the judiciary, which they deemed inappropriate for an aspiring president who would be called upon to uphold France’s institutions.

Despite these defections, his supporters came out by the tens of thousands. The mainstream media tried to downplay the numbers, just as CNN did when it showed pictures - perhaps doctored - of Trump’s inauguration versus Obama’s.

To the cheering crowd, Fillon’s opening statement was: “They think I am alone. They want me to be alone. Are we alone?”

 He was not only defending his honor and that of his wife, but “a certain idea of France’s greatness,” he said in words reminiscent of Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” It was the France of Victor Hugo, Georges Clemenceau, Albert Camus, and Charles de Gaulle that he had invited to be present at the Trocadero rally.

He deplored the sorry state of the nation after five years of disastrous socialist government and lashed out at Hollande for his constant efforts to bring the country down. He predicted that Hollande’s “towel holder” Macron was getting ready to walk in his footsteps.

He had particularly scathing words for Macron’s demagoguery in going to Algeria to bash France’s colonial past and call it a “crime against humanity,” in what was an obvious bid to win the Muslim vote. The same Macron, while on a visit to London, had also declared that there was “no such thing as a French culture.”

Fillon mocked his former supporters so prompt in switching allegiance or “falling on their wallet,” stating that they had acted “without shame or pride.”

Finally, he reminded the crowds that their country was in a state of emergency as a result of a string of terror attacks. Their selection of a candidate should therefore be based on issues - terrorism, immigration, unemployment - not the “buzz” of the moment, he added, in an indirect reference to the media frenzy surrounding the Penelopegate brouhaha.

Some commentators have blamed him for personalizing the election - for the “Trumpization” of his campaign, as they called it. But Fillon is by nature a low-key, private man, very different from the flamboyant, larger-than-life Donald Trump.

It was not his fault that the presidential race should increasingly be focused on personal dramas rather than key issues. Fillon was the candidate who had outlined the best program for France’s recovery during the primary campaign. But the floodgates of a scandal were suddenly flung open and drowned everything.

Furthermore, while Trump was from the start an outsider to politics, an ‘anti-establishment’ candidate, reluctantly endorsed by his own Republican Party, Fillon came from the inside and held public office - as prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, and as a member of parliament.

Yes, there was certainly a moment where his woes threatened to catapult him into the anti-establishment camp. And yes, at those times he sounded a bit like Trump - when he cast doubt on the judiciary’s independence, and denounced the press’ lack of truthfulness. But France is not the U.S., and the backlash was severe. Several of Fillon’s close collaborators defected as a result, causing him to soften his stance.

The direct line of communication Fillon established with people by inviting them to legitimize his candidacy at the Trocadero, also smacked of Trump’s populist discourse.

But this episode of marginalization will soon be over as Fillon has just been invested with renewed legitimacy. This happy surprise came recently when Alain Juppé, who had been pressed to accept a nomination transfer, officially and conclusively declined it at a press conference, bringing clarity to a confusing situation. The influential political committee of ‘Les Republicains,’ a rightwing political party, convened in an emergency session that same evening and unanimously renewed their support for Fillon, thereby rehabilitating him as the officially endorsed candidate.

Yet, the storm of the last few weeks has taken its toll. Some defectors did not come back. Fillon also slid back in the polls. He is now in third position behind Macron and Le Pen, after ranking first. He needs to gain at least five points to stand a chance of making it to the second round.

Part of his electorate migrated to Macron’s camp, the main beneficiary of Fillon’s woes. He will have to snatch it back. Le Pen remained at the same place as she seems to have her own stable electorate which won’t fluctuate much until, of course, the second round when votes get transferred to the finalists and surprises may occur. She presently enjoys 25% in the polls, one point less than Macron, and six more than Fillon. Fillon should regain a bit of strength after the Trocadero success, and this will reflect in the next poll.

Further twists are to be expected in this atypical presidential election, with the beginning of Fillon’s investigation scheduled for March 15, and the first televised debate among candidates planned for March 20. The first round of the election will be held on April 23.

They must be too a sign of the times - presidential races turning to circuses. The latest twist in the French campaign is the investigation of the leading candidate, former Premier François Fillon, prompted by allegations that he paid his wife for years for a fake parliamentary assistant job.

When the satirical weekly ‘Canard Enchaîné’ dropped its bombshell on François Fillon at the end of January, alleging that between 1998 and 2007 he had remunerated his British-born wife Penelope and two of their five children for fictional jobs, the financial prosecutor lost no time. Within 24 hours, a probe was launched and Fillon’s office raided.

Lawmakers are entitled to employ family members, but the ‘Canard’ said there was no evidence of actual work.

Despite Fillon’s protestations that his wife Penelope and their children did, in fact, work and all tax returns were duly filed, the media gleefully seized on the story, which nearly monopolized their air time. Viewers were force-fed daily rations of the saga, so much so that even Fillon’s greatest champions began to doubt his honesty.

Many were convinced that the Penelopegate was created to force Fillon, the conservative candidate, out of the presidential race. This would leave the field open to Emmanuel Macron, the socialist candidate of the establishment.

In the final weeks before the commencement of the primary, Macron had resigned his ministerial post in the socialist government of Manuel Valls to run as an independent candidate on a platform he described as "liberal, or neoliberal, but definitely not socialist." While he was initially lagging in the polls behind Fillon, he has sprinted ahead and now leaves him far behind. The populist ‘National Front’ party of Marine Le Pen continues to rank second.

The embattled Fillon remained steadfast as each passing day brought more bad news. His house was searched and he was summoned to appear before the examining magistrates on March 15 - two days before the electoral deadline of 500 requisite sponsorships. The dreadful timing reinforced the impression that Fillon was targeted for political assassination.

His constituents started to jump ship. The first to bolt were former supporters of his center-right rival, Alain Juppé, who had transferred their votes to him after his landslide victory over Juppé in the primary.

Juppé who had initially remained silent, let it be known through his entourage on Friday that he could be persuaded to enter the race again if Fillon withdrew his candidacy. Juppé proved to be a weak candidate in the primary, where he lost to Fillon who had scored twice as many votes. He also was no stranger to prosecution, having been sentenced in 2004 to a suspended 14-month prison term and to one year of political ineligibility in a case of…fictitious jobs at the Paris City Hall.

To better pave the way for Macron, and guard against the victory of the populist candidate, a similar accusation was filed a few days later against Marine Le Pen.

Like Fillon, Le Pen was summoned to appear before the financial magistrates. But unlike him, she refused to comply until the electoral process was over.

The establishment was obviously trying to present its candidate, Macron, as the only one with clean hands, as the “White Horse” of the French people. But was he?

This former tax inspector had taken a timely ‘sabbatical’ from public service to do a stint as an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque in 2008, a bank that serves as one of the antechambers of power at the heart of the French establishment.

His docility - perhaps due to his young age - brought him the ultimate distinction: first to become an associate, and then a managing partner.

At only 39, he was already a millionaire after managing a merger acquisition on behalf of Nestlé and Pfizer for more than 11 billion Swiss francs. But he ‘forgot’ to pay his wealth tax - ‘renovating’ his wife’s house so that his earnings would remain below EUR1.3 million. This is the threshold at which France's notorious 'wealth tax' is triggered. Supreme irony, the story was broken a few years ago by the same ‘Canard Enchaîné’ which is now going after François Fillon.

In 2012, Macron was appointed ‘Deputy Secretary-General of the Presidency of the Republic’.

His path just kept moving upward. In June 2014, the Elysée (this is the French equivalent of the White House) announced that Macron was to leave the office of François Hollande, where he concurrently held the positions of  ‘Economic and Financial Advisor ‘and ‘Deputy Secretary-General of the Elysée,’ to be appointed Minister of Economy and Industry. He was then barely 36 years old.

Macron has refused to reveal the names of his campaign funders, claiming it would be a “breach of confidence”.

It is however clear that he has the backing of many of the heavy hitters in large corporations. With a program that can be described as flimsy at best, he seems little more than a media bubble, albeit a big one in a country where nine billionaires own almost all media outlets, giving financial circles unprecedented control over mainstream media.

Marine Le Pen denounced the relationship between Macron and the corporate world in a TV interview yesterday on BFMTV, the media outlet owned by Patrick Drahi, a Moroccan-born multibillionaire media mogul with French and Israeli citizenship who lives in Switzerland.

Macron is rumored to be behind the ‘coup’ staged against Fillon. Insider information made the rounds in early February that the ‘dossier’ relating to Penelope Fillon’s employment came from the Ministry of Finance and was handed to the Canard by a close friend of Macron who owes him his current post at the Elysée. It was a typical case of 'you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’  A letter denouncing the scam was sent to the Canard by a former leader of the French Patrol, an elite unit of the French air force comparable to the Blue Angels.

The odds were certainly stacked against Fillon.

Pressured by his own political family to let go and give them a chance to recover; faced with rearguard attacks from a left clinging to power; placed under investigation by a justice system seemingly complicit with the political and media establishment, he decided to fight back and first, to maintain his speaking engagements in the campaign.

At a political rally in Nîmes, he was slapped with more bad news just as he was entering the hall, but he bit the bullet and his opening words were “My friends, it is a fighter who stands before you."

He said that the attacks against him would not have been so fierce had his program been more bland. There was something about his candidature and people’s support that “went against the grain of political correctness” and that’s why the “grindstone and the rumor mill” were being used against him 24/7.

He vowed not to back down and betray those who counted on him to get their country back. He also would not stand to see his legitimacy, conferred on him by his overwhelming victory in the primary, held hostage to an arbitrary judicial timeline.

He invited attendees and fans to mobilize in a show of support on Sunday, March 5, at Place du Trocadéro in Paris. It was organized by his teams under the banner: ‘The People of the Right Fight Back.'

Its stated aim was to counter the judicial ‘coup,’ which was trying to “confiscate” the presidential election through an anti-Fillon manhunt, and to get “the street” to confirm Fillon’s legitimacy.

The news of the rally enraged President François Hollande who, from the Elysee Palace, deplored “this kind of questioning by the street of France’s laws, institutions, and justice system during an investigation.”

The socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, joined Hollande’s appeal and called for restraint and “dignity."  After the announcement of the rally, there were more defections - including Fillon’s campaign manager and spokesman, both uneasy about his showdown with the judiciary, which they deemed inappropriate for an aspiring president who would be called upon to uphold France’s institutions.

Despite these defections, his supporters came out by the tens of thousands. The mainstream media tried to downplay the numbers, just as CNN did when it showed pictures - perhaps doctored - of Trump’s inauguration versus Obama’s.

To the cheering crowd, Fillon’s opening statement was: “They think I am alone. They want me to be alone. Are we alone?”

 He was not only defending his honor and that of his wife, but “a certain idea of France’s greatness,” he said in words reminiscent of Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” It was the France of Victor Hugo, Georges Clemenceau, Albert Camus, and Charles de Gaulle that he had invited to be present at the Trocadero rally.

He deplored the sorry state of the nation after five years of disastrous socialist government and lashed out at Hollande for his constant efforts to bring the country down. He predicted that Hollande’s “towel holder” Macron was getting ready to walk in his footsteps.

He had particularly scathing words for Macron’s demagoguery in going to Algeria to bash France’s colonial past and call it a “crime against humanity,” in what was an obvious bid to win the Muslim vote. The same Macron, while on a visit to London, had also declared that there was “no such thing as a French culture.”

Fillon mocked his former supporters so prompt in switching allegiance or “falling on their wallet,” stating that they had acted “without shame or pride.”

Finally, he reminded the crowds that their country was in a state of emergency as a result of a string of terror attacks. Their selection of a candidate should therefore be based on issues - terrorism, immigration, unemployment - not the “buzz” of the moment, he added, in an indirect reference to the media frenzy surrounding the Penelopegate brouhaha.

Some commentators have blamed him for personalizing the election - for the “Trumpization” of his campaign, as they called it. But Fillon is by nature a low-key, private man, very different from the flamboyant, larger-than-life Donald Trump.

It was not his fault that the presidential race should increasingly be focused on personal dramas rather than key issues. Fillon was the candidate who had outlined the best program for France’s recovery during the primary campaign. But the floodgates of a scandal were suddenly flung open and drowned everything.

Furthermore, while Trump was from the start an outsider to politics, an ‘anti-establishment’ candidate, reluctantly endorsed by his own Republican Party, Fillon came from the inside and held public office - as prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, and as a member of parliament.

Yes, there was certainly a moment where his woes threatened to catapult him into the anti-establishment camp. And yes, at those times he sounded a bit like Trump - when he cast doubt on the judiciary’s independence, and denounced the press’ lack of truthfulness. But France is not the U.S., and the backlash was severe. Several of Fillon’s close collaborators defected as a result, causing him to soften his stance.

The direct line of communication Fillon established with people by inviting them to legitimize his candidacy at the Trocadero, also smacked of Trump’s populist discourse.

But this episode of marginalization will soon be over as Fillon has just been invested with renewed legitimacy. This happy surprise came recently when Alain Juppé, who had been pressed to accept a nomination transfer, officially and conclusively declined it at a press conference, bringing clarity to a confusing situation. The influential political committee of ‘Les Republicains,’ a rightwing political party, convened in an emergency session that same evening and unanimously renewed their support for Fillon, thereby rehabilitating him as the officially endorsed candidate.

Yet, the storm of the last few weeks has taken its toll. Some defectors did not come back. Fillon also slid back in the polls. He is now in third position behind Macron and Le Pen, after ranking first. He needs to gain at least five points to stand a chance of making it to the second round.

Part of his electorate migrated to Macron’s camp, the main beneficiary of Fillon’s woes. He will have to snatch it back. Le Pen remained at the same place as she seems to have her own stable electorate which won’t fluctuate much until, of course, the second round when votes get transferred to the finalists and surprises may occur. She presently enjoys 25% in the polls, one point less than Macron, and six more than Fillon. Fillon should regain a bit of strength after the Trocadero success, and this will reflect in the next poll.

Further twists are to be expected in this atypical presidential election, with the beginning of Fillon’s investigation scheduled for March 15, and the first televised debate among candidates planned for March 20. The first round of the election will be held on April 23.