French Frontrunner Rocked by Probe Handing Opening to Rivals

  • Fillon employed his wife as parliamentary aide for years
  • Polls show tight three-way race with Le Pen, Macron rising

Francois Fillon.

Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

The French presidential campaign saw its first major scandal break on Wednesday when prosecutors opened a probe into front-runner Francois Fillon.

The national financial prosecutor started a preliminary criminal investigation into Fillon’s employment of his wife as a parliamentary aide starting in 1998. Satirical weekly Canard Enchaine reported a day earlier that Penelope Fillon collected a public salary totaling about 500,000 euros ($537,000) over multiple years without actually doing any work.

For 62-year-old Fillon, who pollsters have made the clear favorite since he won the Republicans’ nomination in November, the consequences are potentially far-reaching. The lifelong politician has vaunted his probity as one of his main qualifications for office.

In a statement on Wednesday evening, Fillon said the investigation will allow him to put an end to unfounded accusations and he wants to speak to prosecutors as soon as possible. Fillon’s spokesman said Thursday that Penelope’s work was mostly representing her husband in his rural constituency in Western France when he was at the National Assembly in Paris.

“This is no small matter and anything could happen,” said Gerard Grunberg, a senior researcher at the Paris Institute for Political Sciences. “This affair hurts Fillon’s political image, which was built on transparency and old-fashioned respectability.”

Twists and Turns

In a race that has already seen Fillon’s Republicans reject France’s most popular politician for their candidate, former President Nicolas Sarkozy lose in a first-round primary and the governing Socialists eclipsed by 39-year-old independent Emmanuel Macron, the prosecutors’ decision adds a new layer of volatility. Macron may be in the best position to benefit.

A former economy minister under Francois Hollande and before that a banker at Rothschild & Co. advising on mergers, Macron is relatively new to politics and has remained largely free from scandal. In the same Canard Enchaine issue that broke the Fillon story, there was a report that Macron took advantage of ministerial resources to launch his campaign last year. The candidate denied any abuse of funds and used the occasion to paint himself as an outsider to the political system that has nurtured his rivals over decades.

“Emmanuel Macron has already proved his freedom from a political system to which the other candidates are inextricably linked for the good reason that they live off it,” his campaign said in a statement.

While he’s yet to break into the top two in polling for the first round in April, he’s seen his support grow steadily since declaring his candidacy last year and large, enthusiastic crowds attend many of his rallies.

“Macron can benefit,” Grunberg said. “Despite everything, there have been some centrists that went to Fillon and given the situation, they may turn to Macron.”

Marine Le Pen’s team is also sensing an opportunity.

“For a candidate who boasted of his integrity, the fact that he was above the fray, this is surprising,” David Rachline, Le Pen’s campaign chief said on France 5 television. “It raises a lot of questions.”

Le Pen herself faces a fraud investigation for her use of 339,900 euros in European Parliament funds to employ aides doing unrelated work. Rachline dismissed the issue by saying that those employees did actually work.

Polls Tighten

“This increases the gap between the people and their politicians and it hits Fillon hard,” said pollster Jerome Fourquet from the Ifop Institute.

Fillon was already losing momentum in the polls before the story broke.

Le Pen, who wants to take France out of the euro, edged into the lead with about 26 percent support compared with about 25 percent for Fillon in this month’s Ipsos poll. Macron has moved within striking distance of the two frontrunners for the first round with about 21 percent. In mid-December, Fillon led by 3 percentage points.

All the same, Fillon remains the favorite to be the next president because Le Pen may struggle to broaden her support in the second round vote on May 7.

Explanations Sought

Penelope, mother of Fillon’s five children, took a salary as her husband’s parliamentary assistant and as the aide to his one-time replacement as lawmaker over multiple years, though she may not have actually worked in that capacity, Canard Enchaine reported Tuesday, without citing anyone.

Fillon’s spokesman Thierry Solere said on RMC Radio Thursday that it’s common practice for lawmakers from both the left and right to employ family members, and that Penelope had always “accompanied” her husband’s work in politics. Bernard Accoyer, the former head of the National Assembly and a member of Fillon’s party, told France Inter radio he’d “often seen” Penelope participating in work at the National Assembly and in Fillon’s election district. Bruno Retailleau, the Senate whip for Fillon’s party, told Europe1 radio that Fillon would start presenting evidence of his wife’s work to investigators today.

Fillon’s wife was brought up in Wednesday night’s debate between the two remaining candidates in the Socialist Party’s primary. Manuel Valls and Benoit Hamon said lawmakers should be barred from hiring relatives, as they are in the European Parliament.

Valls couldn’t resist taking a dig.

“Fillon has based his campaign on three issues: cutting 500,000 civil service jobs, cutting France’s welfare state, and his propriety,” Valls said. “I think he does have something to explain.”

— With assistance by Gaspard Sebag, and Gregory Viscusi

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