Fillon Trains Fire on Macron as Scandal Upends French Vote

  • Front-runner looks to revive campaign after prosecutors’ probe
  • Socialist nominate leftist Hamon over establishment candidate

Hamon’s Challenge to Unite France’s Socialist Party

French Presidential front-runner Francois Fillon unleashed a volley of attacks on independent challenger Emmanuel Macron Sunday, as he tried to stabilize his campaign after a turbulent week.

With prosecutors examining whether Fillon broke the law when he employed his wife as a parliamentary assistant, the candidate fought back at a rally in Paris saying that Macron was a typical elitist and out-of-touch with ordinary people, while tying him to the Socialist government’s policies. In a further rebuke to outgoing President Francois Hollande, Socialist supporters picked party dissident Benoit Hamon as their nominee in a primary vote.

Francois Fillon on Jan. 29.

Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

Macron, 39, quit the Hollande government last year to mount an independent run for president and is nipping at the heels of the Republican Fillon and the anti-euro nationalist Marine Le Pen, pitching himself as young outsider who can appeal to voters across the spectrum. While surveys have made Fillon favorite to win May’s presidential run-off, bookmakers tracked by cut the odds of a Macron upset over the weekend, judging that prosecutors’ Jan. 25 decision to open a preliminary criminal investigation into the Fillons may shift public opinion.

“He says he’s a reformer -- why not? -- but not as much as me,” Fillon shouted to a crowd of about 10,000 waving French flags. “He says he’s independent and comes from nowhere: the truth is that he ran Hollande’s program and most of his policies. Macron is a prototype of the elite that knows nothing of the deep-down reality of our country.”

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A Kantar Sofres poll released Monday in Le Figaro shows why Fillon has to fend off Macron. If the April 23 first round were held now, Le Pen would take 25 percent, with Fillon on 22 percent and Macron on 21 percent in a dogfight to take the second slot in the May 7 run-off. Should he make the second round, Fillon would hammer Le Pen 60 percent to 40 percent but if he faced Macron he would lose by a similar margin. Macron would rout Le Pen 65 percent to 35 percent. The poll of 1,032 people was taken after the affair relating to Penelope Fillon’s employment broke.

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As Macron’s momentum builds, his former colleagues in the Socialist are struggling to maintain unity at the tail end of the most unpopular presidency in modern French history.

Socialist Tensions

Hamon, 49, made his name rebelling against the leaders of the Socialist Party and President Hollande. He defeated Hollande’s former prime minister, Manuel Valls by 58.7 percent to 41.3 percent.

“Starting on Monday, I will propose to all the candidates in the primary, and to all those who are part of other leftist and ecological movements, that together we construct a governing majority that stands for social, ecological and democratic progress,” Hamon said in his acceptance speech. “France needs a modern innovative left. Victory is not out of the question.”

Mathematically, he could be right. Politically, it looks a long shot.

Hollande is the least popular president in modern French history and the first to decide not to stand for reelection. The Kantar Sofres poll said Hamon would receive 15 percent in the first round of the presidential election, finishing a distant fourth and well out of the running to qualify for the run-off. That poll was an improvement on earlier polls which put Hamon in single digits.

The poll put Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is backed by the Communist Party, at 10 percent. Hamon has made overtures to Melenchon to unite their forces, but has been rebuffed.

Defecting to Macron

The party itself is divided over the legacy of the Hollande years. On Sunday night Valls offered a tepid endorsement before launching into a list of his accomplishments in government. And Hamon didn’t wait for his defeated rival to finish before starting his acceptance speech, forcing TV networks to cut away from the former prime minister in mid-sentence.

“There will be work to do to unite the party,” Socialist spokeswoman Corinne Narassiguin said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “We have to make sure we don’t have too many people leave to join Emmanuel Macron.”

The Socialists’ decision to back Hamon’s proposals for a universal income for all French adults over Valls pragmatism offers another boost to Macron, who has already lured many Socialist voters and won the backing of several party figures.

“Supporters of social democracy rather than unreformed socialism have to accept they may have to choose the maverick candidate with a fledgling party structure over the candidate of the established Socialist Party,” said Charles Lichfield, an associate at Eurasia Group.

— With assistance by Caroline Connan

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