Day 99 – Penelopegate, Lawyergate and Sleazegate

End-November François Fillon (Sarkozy’s Prime Minister for 5 years) crushingly defeated Alain Juppé in the right-wing Républicains’ Primary. Having won 66.5% of the vote, it surely seemed that Fillon’s coronation and the Presidency were inevitable. Polls showed Fillon defeating Le Pen (Front National) easily in the first round, with Macron (centrist-ex-‘socialist’ now independentist En Marche party – a near-untranslatable mish-mash of ‘Onwards’/’Forward’/’Let’s Start’) a distant third.

Then analysis of Fillon’s political programme began. Would he really dismantle France’s deservedly much-loved public health programme, keeping it only for serious illnesses, with the rest being paid for by private insurance? Could this be anything to do with his close friend/adviser Henri de Castries, ex-boss of insurance behemoth Axa? Did Fillon really intend laying off 500,000 public employees over 5 years? Cutting wealth tax (the elegantly-titled Impôt de Solidarité sur la Fortune) while increasing the working week to 39 hours? Getting public servants working longer hours for less money? What about his links to Catholic right-wing activists, recognising his deeply, and long-held, socially conservative views?

[It suddenly all seemed a bit ‘Back To the Future’ over here: Macron is called a ‘… young Tony Blair’ by Andrew Marr. Fillon proudly self-describes as a Thatcherite (previously that appellation was anathema)]

After some quick (and not very deft) health care policy backtracking, plus ‘mis-speakings’ from advisers, it seemed that the silence Fillon’s campaign had fallen into was probably for the best. Then, over January, it appeared to have become a three-horse race (remember only the top 2 in the 1st round go through to the Presidential run-off). Macron’s campaign had developed The Big Mo: huge crowds at public meetings and extensively generous media coverage. Macron, Fillon and Le Pen (the latter still leading in 1st round polls) were within 5 percentage points of each other – while in a Macron v Fillon run-off, Macron had become favourite.

The last thing Fillon needed, with his campaign becalmed, were well-documented sleaze accusations from France’s weekly ‘Private Eye’ equivalent, Le Canard Enchainé. After all, Fillon was the one who had tellingly struck a low blow at Sarkozy when he asked whether anyone could ever imagine General de Gaulle having been subject of a criminal charge.

Fillon attempted to explain his wife Penelope’s work as a political assistant earning some €500,000 over 8 years. But it seemed difficult to believe because she had always made clear her distance from his political life. Anyway, French state financial prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation, with no specific time limit for such enquiry (maybe 6 weeks will be needed?). There are also questions over the seriousness of Penelope’s €100,000 contract for a millionaire chum’s literary review.

In the wake of the Fakejobgate allegations, Fillon rushed on to leading TV channel TF1 for an interview. As part of Operation Transparency he said he should mention that, while a Senator, he had employed two of his children (who were lawyers) on specific tasks. Within not many minutes that was all unravelling. It turns out that while Fillon was a Senator neither of his lawyer children had even yet qualified as lawyers: one qualified 4 months after Fillon had left the Senate, the other 4 years later.

Fillon has his first big public Presidential meeting in Paris tonight: time for more explanations? The journalists might prefer to be there rather than at Hamon HQ.

Fillon has said that, if charged, he would withdraw as Presidential candidate for Les Républicains. In the margins, Juppé was asked on Friday if he would be prepared to be the Plan B should Fillon withdraw: he said he ‘clearly and definitively’ excluded such a possibility, and anyway no vacancy existed. If everything really does turn out that way, might that mean that Les Républicains go back to their Third Man? Yes, hard to believe, but welcome back Nicolas Sarkozy.

Marine Le Pen must be rubbing her hands. While Macron worries about a possible Juppé return which would definitively finish him.

What larks Pip old chap.

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