(Feb 1 – Update at bottom on Le Pen)
François Fillon, the leading right wing (but not far-right) contender for this year’s French presidential elections,
is facing an uncomfortable scandal. According to Le Canard Enchaîné, he paid his wife Penelope some €500,000 as an employee of his various political offices in the years 1998-2012. The claim is that she did essentially no work for that money and hence the Fillon family was ripping off the French state.
It is worth noting that Fillon is very far from alone amongst French politicians when it comes to employing family members and that although half a million Euros is indeed a good deal of money it is the total over some 14 years and hence, annually, not such a huge amount. Certainly compared to any number of other French political scandals regarding money the amount seems to be comparatively minor. It is in fact quite likely that there is nothing at all illegal in what occurred, and Mr Fillon has protested loudly to that effect and to promise that he has documentation in his favor that he can give to the investigative authorities.

However the legal process isn’t really the problem, rather the damage is in his political reputation. Fillon has been trying to present himself as Mr Clean and to position himself as the establishment candidate who intends to reform it. This scandal does not help because it makes him look like just another sleazy pol. It is hard to say how seriously this scandal will be viewed by the electorate as a whole. I suspect the average French voter will be less impressed than the French media who are playing this for all they can. Assuming that is, that this turns out to be the only scandal in his closet and not the first one in a string of them.

What is interesting to me, however, is who told Le Canard and why. Given that up to now Fillon has been one of the top two candidates according to most polls, and hence one of the two who will be in the runoff election, finding this out may well influence the electorate’s opinion of the scandal. This is particularly important given that Mr Fillon is campaigning on plans to introduce a long-overdue Thatcherite revolution in France, slashing government departments, privatizing, banning strikes etc.

It seems unlikely that anyone from the Front National would be in a position to have this information so, although Marine Le Pen may benefit from his discomfort, I rather doubt her supporters are behind this. More likely it is someone in the center left who is responsible. Since the Socialists are the government now, this is a far more likely source of the report.

If it is a politically appointed bureaucrat then that is probably because he is fearful of his job being lost by Fillon and that in turn suggests that if this is found to be the case, support for Fillon will rise. The thinking will be something along the lines of: minor bending of the rules, so what? he’s been betrayed by some sleazy civil servant afraid of hsi reforms. That means the reforms must be good. So vote Fillon.

Of course it could be an FN sympathizer. In which case I imagine the same argument will apply only more so: the FN are so scared of him they tried to sink him with this minor stuff. Vote Fillon.

No matter what, it looks like the French elections have just got more interesting.

Update: The elections have just got more interesting as Marine Le Pen is being told to repay money to the EU.

A European Parliament deadline for France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen to return more than 300,000 euros (£257,000; $321,000) it says she has misspent, has passed.

The presidential candidate had until midnight to repay the money, but said she had no intention of doing so.

There are obvious parallels with Fillon, so obvious that Le Pen pointedly made sure of the difference:

Asked if she would pay back the money, Marine Le Pen told AFP: “To pay the money back, I’d have had to have received the funds, but my name isn’t Francois Fillon.”

Interestingly at the bottom of the article we see that the French sneering classes have done a wonderful job on making it hard for the FN to get its message out – they’ve blocked it from banking. I can’t help think that there woudl be an enormous outcry if another political party in France, say the Socialists or Communists, faced the same barriers.