Fillon Scandal Boosts Macron With France Inc. in Elysee Race

  • Former economy minister gets closer look from executives
  • Polls show Fillon’s voter support has weakened in past weeks

With Francois Fillon’s presidential campaign roiled by scandal less than three months before voting starts, France’s major companies are increasingly looking toward Emmanuel Macron, a business-friendly political novice who’s only just begun sketching details of how he would govern.

Most corporate leaders had quietly placed their bets on Fillon, a center-right stalwart who was prime minister from 2007 to 2012. Fillon’s pledges to slash government spending, reform labor laws and ease regulations on business were one attraction. But he also looked to be a firewall against the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen, whose proposals to exit the euro and erect trade barriers are anathema to French multinationals.

Emmanuel Macron

Photographer: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Le Pen is likely to take first place in the initial round of voting on April 23, according to public-opinion polls, though no survey has shown her winning in the second round.

Until recently, Fillon was favorite to beat her in the runoff. But his support has been eroded by reports his wife and two of his children earned more than 900,000 euros ($969,000) in public funds as parliamentary aides without actually doing a commensurate amount of work. The turmoil in Fillon’s camp is prompting companies and trade groups to take a closer look at other candidates -- especially Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande who’s running as an independent.

The latest poll, released Saturday by BVA, shows Le Pen winning 25 percent in the first round, and qualifying for the run-off with Macron, who’d get 21-22 percent. Fillon would receive 18-20 percent and be eliminated. In a hypothetical second round, Macron would crush Le Pen 66-34 percent while Fillon would beat her 60-40 percent.

‘Pole Position’

“Macron has found himself in pole position, almost by default,” says Paul Boury, a Paris lobbyist who represents several major corporations and trade associations.

While French business leaders are famously discreet about politics, they reach out informally to candidates, often quizzing them over private lunches and dinners. Fillon’s backers include Henri de Castries, former chairman of insurance giant AXA, and Pierre Danon, former head of cable TV company Numericable. But the courtship ritual has been upended, as some now view Fillon’s damaged candidacy as beyond repair.

A telecommunications industry leader, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, says corporate leaders should now focus on Macron instead and make contact with Socialist nominee Benoit Hamon, while waiting to see whether Fillon’s Republican party replaces him.

The leader of a major trade association who asked not to be named because his group doesn’t comment publicly on politics said the whole Republican candidacy may be a writeoff, as he sees no one on the bench with the skills to mount a successful national campaign. Fillon has said he won’t step aside unless he’s placed under formal investigation.

Le Pen, Shunned

“Our candidate is weakened, very weakened," Fillon spokesman Benoist Apparu said in an interview Feb. 2. “But even with this weakness, imagine what it would be to have Le Pen elected, and then in October discover that there is no wrongdoing on his part? In such a crisis we must hold firm.”

Le Pen, meanwhile, is getting the cold shoulder from corporate France. Lobbyist Boury says that while his clients have met privately with the Fillon and Macron campaigns, only one client has asked to meet with Le Pen’s staff. “Some of my clients don’t dare establish a link with the National Front,” he says. “Some are repelled.”

Francois de Voyer, who heads an entrepreneurs’ group called Audace, is backing Le Pen and he says antipathy toward her runs so deep that he’s afraid to disclose the name of the Parisian transportation business he co-owns. “There’s a fear we might lose clients,” he said.

Macron’s Plans

For business, the most logical alternative looks to be Macron, a former investment banker who’s never been elected to office. Both Macron and Le Pen are expected to give details on their policy proposals in speeches on Saturday.

In an interview Wednesday on France Inter radio, Macron began to set out his program, saying he would change the way France’s 35-hour work week law is applied without scrapping it, and would shift its tax on personal wealth over 1.3 million euros to focus on real estate instead of productive investment.

Even before Fillon’s troubles Macron had impressed some business people as an adviser to Hollande from 2012 to 2014. He helped temper government action after then-Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg called for the government to take control of a steel mill, and was a key player in talks that led to the sale of Vivendi’s SFR mobile unit. He also helped push through two major reductions in payroll charges and as economy minister from 2014 to 2016, he eased restrictions on Sunday trading for retailers.

That record has won him the endorsement of business people including Marc Simoncini, founder of online dating website Meetic, and Bruno Bonnell, who set up video-game company Infogrames Entertainment. Entrepreneurs also think Macron is on their side, said Malik Goulamhoussen, who runs Peech Studio, a three-year-old video producer in the Paris suburb of Vanves.

Macron, like Fillon, would push to reduce payroll taxes and regulations that weigh on business, said Goulamhoussen. “When I talk with other entrepreneurs, we all agree on this,” he said.

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