French Court Probes Leave Le Pen Unscathed as Fillon Bid Falters

  • Republican Fillon has seen his support dented by investigation
  • Le Pen defies authorities with anti-establishment rhetoric

Prosecutors’ interventions in the French election have so far done more damage to the establishment’s one-time champion than the nationalist firebrand vowing to overthrow the system.

The Republican Francois Fillon and National Front leader Marine Le Pen both say the criminal probes they face are political plots against them, but it’s only Fillon, a church-going 62-year-old former prime minister, who has been set back by the allegations. Le Pen’s suspected misuse of her allowance from the European Parliament hasn’t hurt her at all.

Marine Le Pen on Feb. 28.

Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

“The National Front is seen as persecuted by the system so their supporters think that if everyone else has gotten rich of the system, it’s good for them to get some of that money back,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist linked to the Jean Jaures research institute. “Fillon tried to use the conspiracy angle but it doesn’t work because he’s from the system.”

On Tuesday, a committee of lawmakers in Brussels will consider a request from the French courts to strip Le Pen of her parliamentary immunity over two separate cases of defamation and publishing violent images of Islamic State killings on Twitter. The committee is due to release its recommendations to the EU parliament next week, and the full chamber will vote on the issue later in March.

Le Pen is battling a range of mainstream politicians asking for one more chance to address voters’ concerns about lackluster economic growth and the perceived threat of immigration and terrorism. Instead, she’s offering voters a chance to upend the status quo by putting up border controls, stopping mass immigration and pulling out of the euro.

Bonds Rally

While polls make Le Pen the favorite to win the first round on April 23, they also project that she’ll lose heavily to the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron in run-off on May 7.

French bonds have rallied this week since Macron’s candidacy was boosted by a series of alliances from potential rivals. The extra yield investors demand to hold French 10-year debt instead of similar-maturity German bunds dropped 6 basis points on Monday to 68.

At the beginning of January it was Fillon who was tipped to face Le Pen in the second round. Then prosecutors in Paris decided to investigate media reports that his wife had earned almost 1 million euros ($1.1 million) in public wages without actually doing any proper work. His polling numbers dropped by about 5 percentage points to 20 percent and haven’t recovered.

Fillon cried foul, demanding to know why the allegations came out just weeks before the election, when some of the facts date back to the 1990s. Prosecutors on Friday extended the probe, saying further investigation is needed. That move means he’s unlikely to be charged before the election, but leaves a permanent stain on his candidacy.

Prosecutors’ Dilemma

The emergence of the allegations just weeks before the first round vote on April 23 are putting prosecutors in an unprecedented bind, according to Didier Rebut, a law professor at the University of Paris 2 Pantheon-Assas. The courts can’t avoid interfering with the campaign, he said, all they can do is try to minimize their impact.

“We’ve set new records for speed” in the Fillon investigation, he said. “It’s not that they want to harm Fillon. But that they want to interfere the shortest amount of time with the presidential campaign.”

Socialist Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche that there would be no let up from prosecutors during the campaign, though he insisted he had no involvement in the decision to investigate Fillon. Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, trailing in fourth in the polls, backed that stance.

“The justice system is independent,” he said on France Inter radio Monday. “They are involved in the election because there are serious suspicions of fraud.”

Le Pen on the other hand has styled herself as a crusader to free ordinary French people from the misrule of European elites. That leaves her far less vulnerable to attacks from the establishment.

“In the National Front’s affair there’s no accusation of personal enrichment, while in the case of Francois Fillon it’s him and his family that are the direct targets of the probe,” said Cecile Alduy, a professor of French culture and politics at Stanford University.

Earlier last week, Le Pen refused a non-binding summons to be interviewed by French police over use of European Parliament funds to pay for party work in France. She told investigators she won’t meet them until after the presidential elections, which conclude in May, and the vote on a new legislature in June.

“The magistrates are there to apply the law, not to invent the law and thwart the will of the people,” Le Pen told supporters at a rally Sunday in Nantes.