Macron Leads in French Race as Scandal Upends Fillon’s Plans

Updated on
  • Fillon fights to clear name in second week of jobs scandal
  • Le Pen picks up first-round support, set to lose run-off

France’s Fillon to Maintain Presidential Bid: AFP

Emmanuel Macron stepped into the void left by rival Francois Fillon, setting out the first elements of his policy plans as he became the de-facto front-runner in France’s 2017 presidential election.

Macron would beat the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in May’s presidential run-off by a margin of 65 percent to 35 percent, according to an Elabe poll for Les Echos and Radio Classique published Wednesday. The independent Macron would win about 23 percent of votes in the first round of voting, compared with 20 percent for Fillon and 27 percent for Le Pen, Elabe said.

Emmanuel Macron

Photographer: Fred Tanneau/AFP via Getty Images

Fillon, a Republican who started the year as favorite to be France’s next leader, stands to be ejected in the first round of voting after his support was undermined by a series of reports about him giving public salaries to his wife and children, a poll showed. The Elabe poll was conducted before the latest revelations broke on Tuesday night.

As the Republican camp spent an eighth day fending off suggestions of wrongdoing by their candidate, Macron attempted to answer criticism that he has failed to state his policies. In a two-hour radio interview, the 39-year-old focused on his plans for economic reform and declined to attack his embattled rival.

“I’m not going to participate in this feeding frenzy,” Macron said on France Inter radio. “People need a chance to be heard. Francois Fillon needs to be able to explain himself.”

All the same, Fillon’s position with his own party is getting increasingly fragile. On Wednesday he called an emergency meeting with lawmakers of his party at his campaign headquarters and asked them for two weeks to recover from the revelations and get his campaign back on track, Agence France-Presse reported. Several Republicans lawmakers are now publicly questioning his candidacy.

“The situation is very, very compromised,” Georges Fenech said in an interview on France Info radio. He said the mandate that Fillon won in the party’s primary is now “void.”

“While the risk that ‎Fillon will have to withdraw his candidacy has increased a lot in the last few days‎, the Le Pen risk has risen only modestly,” Berenberg Bank economist led by Holger Schmieding in London said in an e-mailed note. “On balance, center-left reformer Macron could get a bigger boost from the Fillon affair than Le Pen.”

For an explainer on the Fillon scandal, click here

Macron said Wednesday he wants to change the way France’s 35-hour work week law is applied without scrapping it, and would shift its tax on personal assets of more than 1.3 million euros ($1.4 million) to focusing on real estate instead of productive investment. He called for more investment at a European level but warned his compatriots against “childish” squabbling with Germany.

“The one thing the Germans want to know is whether Marine Le Pen can be elected,” he said. “I tell them she can” and that change is needed in common economic policies, Macron said.

Bond Reaction

Rising concerns about Le Pen’s prospects have weighed on French bonds this year, pushing the premium investors demand to hold the nation’s 10-year debt over the German equivalent to the highest since 2014.

The spread widened further on Wednesday after the latest reports related to Fillon, climbing three basis points to 63 at 1:21 p.m. in Paris. The difference was 21 points as recently as July. So far all polls have indicated that the National Front candidate won’t come close to winning the second round.

Fillon has denied wrongdoing in employing his wife and two of his children as parliamentary assistants. The employment itself is legal, even typical for French parliamentarians, and the preliminary inquiry revolves around whether they actually worked for their pay. Le Canard Enchaine, the newspaper that broke the story last week, said yesterday that the family earned about 1 million euros over more than 15 years from the jobs and an arrangement with a high-brow magazine.

Credibility Problems

“I am confident, I am calm and I’m waiting for the end of the investigation,” Fillon said late Tuesday. “Never has a situation like this one occurred. Never, three months before an election, has such an big and professional operation been set up to eliminate a candidate other than through a democratic vote. Everyone will reap the consequences.”

Fillon has promised to withdraw from the race if the preliminary inquiry becomes a formal one -- something that has never happened to a major French candidate this late in a presidential contest.

The former prime minister was the establishment’s leading candidate in the battle to stop Le Pen’s populist campaign from winning the presidency and leading France out of the euro. He won the Republicans’ primary boasting that he had the irreproachable integrity required to lead the country.

More than three quarters of French voters were unconvinced by his explanations of the jobs for his family, a separate poll showed Tuesday.

— With assistance by Zoe Schneeweiss, and David Goodman

(Updates with unrest in Fillon’s party in sixth paragraph.)
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