Embattled candidates vie for French Presidency

France is in the midst of a bitterly-fought presidential contest, the first round of which takes place 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 of all candidates, but is also reviled by the French establishment and a good chunk of the electorate.

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

Fillon has been the favourite to win the Presidential Elections. Polls have suggested 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 in doubt.

Fillon hit by fake job scandal

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 officially 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 is questionable today.

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. Fillon had originally promised to step down if the authorities placed him under formal investigation. However, he 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.

Le Pen accused of misallocating funds

Meanwhile, France24 report that Marine Le Pen is also involved in an 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.

Le Pen 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 blasts France’s colonial past

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).

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 hasn’t been entirely well-received by the French electorate.

Macron has since 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 support for Macron. According to an OpinionWay poll, Macron and Fillon ended the week on 20% respectively, trailing Le Pen, who is on 26%.

Respectons la langue française

Le Pen has derided Macron for having addressed 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.

These criticisms will strike a chord in a country which takes considerable pride in its language and that language’s importance beyond l’Hexagon.

Le Pen vs Macron looks increasingly likely

As Fillon’s campaign suffers, a contest between Le Pen and Macron in the second round looks increasingly likely. Le Pen is likely to come first in the first round, only to then lose the second. But given recent political upsets including the Brexit win and Trump’s election, one cannot be certain.