French politics lurches from scandal to scandal in highly fraught Presidential contest

The outcome of France’s Presidential election of Spring 2017 is looking highly uncertain just two months before voters head to the polls for the first round on April 23.

The most popular candidate, Marine Le Pen of the Front National, is simultaneously the least popular candidate. She has the strongest support base of all the candidates, but is widely reviled by the French liberal establishment.

Francois Fillon of Les Republicans (conservatives) and Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! (a new liberal movement) are her principle rivals, according to the polls.

Meanwhile, Benoit Hamon of the incumbent Parti Socialist (PS) faces elimination in the first round because of his radical brand of left-wing politics and the government’s record unpopularity.

All bets are off

Francois Fillon has been the favourite to win the Presidential Elections, with polls suggesting a clear victory against Marine Le Pen in the second round on May 7.

However, a series of scandals and controversies have rocked the contest, throwing such predictions into doubt.

Fillon hit by fake job scandal

Les Republicans candidate Francois Fillon has been accused of employing his wife for a non-existent job as his assistant, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of euros to the French taxpayer.

At the centre of the scandal is a video in which Mme Fillon tells the interviewer that:

I have never actually been his assistant or anything like that. I don’t deal with his communication”.

This was in 2007, at a time when Mme Fillon was officials her husband’s assistant.

M. Fillon claims that his wife fulfilled her role, which starkly contradicts her own statement from the video.

Fillon has also defended the arrangement as a “lawful” one, while accepting that the practice of employing family members (he also employed two of his children) is questionable today. (He ceased employing his wife a few years before announcing his candidacy for leader of Les Republicans).

The latest opinion poll confirms earlier surveys that showed that around two thirds of the French public want Fillon to stand aside for another conservative candidate.

But a defiant Fillon is standing fast. Fillon originally promised to carry on, except in the event that the authorities placed him under formal investigation.

However, the Les Republicans leader has since rowed back on that promise; he will stand come what may.

Sarkozy ordered to stand trial

Former President and leader of Les Republicans Nicholas Sarkozy stands accused of falsifying accounts in order to hide 18m euros (£15m) of campaign spending in 2012.

The news is likely to further damage the electoral prospects of Les Republicans, even if Sarkozy is no longer at the helm.

Marine accused of misallocating funds

Meanwhile, France24 report that Marine Le Pen has been caught up in her own expenses scandal.

European anti-fraud investigators say the FN leader used European Parliament funds to pay her bodyguard, Thierry Légier, a total of €41,554 between October and December in 2011 by falsely claiming he was an EU parliamentary assistant.

They claim that Le Pen acknowledged that she did not employ Légier in that capacity during that time.

Marine has vehemently denied having admitted this. She alleges that EU bodies are attacking her as part of politically-motivated campaign against her:

“It’s a shameless lie, I have never admitted such a thing to investigators.”

Macron denies affair

Emmanuel Macron – ENA graduate, ex-Rothschild investment banker and former Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs – is hoping to win the Presidency by styling himself as a political outsider. (The only possible basis for this is that he is running as an independent).

But Macron was recently forced to deny having had a gay extramarital affair:

“If you’re told I lead a double life with Mr Gallet it’s because my hologram has escaped”

Macron’s remark alludes to a rival candidate having recently appeared at a rally in Paris as a hologram, while speaking from another rally in Lyon.

If it appeared ambiguous to some, a spokesman for Macron assured the press that the joke was “a clear denial of the rumours about his private life.”

Macron blasts France’s colonial past

During a recent trip to Algeria, a country which was one of France’s overseas territories from 1830 to 1962, Macron launched a scathing attack on France’s history:

“Colonisation is part of French history.

“It is a crime, a crime against humanity, it is a real barbarism.

“And it’s part of the past and now we have to look forward and present our apologies regarding those to whom we have committed these acts”.

While Macron is certainly right that France’s history is not without blemish, his uncompromising assessment was politically inadvisable.

Back in France, Macron faced a wave of criticism, with accusations that he was “shooting France in the back”, and seeking to ingratiate himself with voters of immigrant origin.

The polls re-adjust

Macron has issued an apology for his misstep in Algeria.

But it may not be enough to repair the damage.

Recent polls have recorded a drop in his support. According to an OpinionWay poll, Mr Macron and Mr Fillon ended the week on 20% respectively, trailing Marine, on 26%.

Respectons la langue française

Macron had already been under fire for lacking patriotism prior to his visit to Algeria, with Marine having derided him addressing a German audience in English, rather than in French.

She has also criticised the organisers of the Paris Olympics 2024 for choosing an English slogan: Made for sharing. And she is not alone in having done so.

These maladresses are significant in a country which takes pride in its language, and which doesn’t want English to become the de facto language of diplomacy.

Marine’s position reflects a general sense that France’s culture does not receive the respect it deserves. By contrast, Macron appeals to those who like to consider themselves above such provincial concerns.

No longer a left – right divide

A contest between Marine and Macron in the second round (feasible after the Fillon fiasco) would be a contest between two fundamentally opposed views.

Globalism vs patriotism; citizens of the world vs citizens of France.

Macron’s more idealistic, globalist worldview, which scorns national identity, attachment and solidarity for the open, international plain, has been ascendant for decades now.

However, after the Brexit vote, Trump’s election victory, and the Italian’s “No” vote, the prevailing wind has fallen.

Marine has caught a new wind in her sails.

The question on everyone’s lips: how far will it take her?