A Key French Election Player Isn't Even Running for President

  • Financial prosecutor has become household name in France
  • Fillon popularity slid after prosecutor’s investigation began

France in the End of Days

In an obscure office in an alley behind a Vietnamese restaurant near Paris’s opera house, a decision was taken on Jan. 25 that changed the course of the French election.

It was on that chilly day that the Parquet National Financier, or PNF, as France’s financial prosecutor is known, opened a probe into the family finances of candidate Francois Fillon, then practically a shoo-in for the presidency. The PNF decided to pursue a report that had appeared that day in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine alleging that Fillon’s wife had earned a public salary of about 600,000 euros ($637,000) over several years without actually doing a lot of work for it.

That action put the PNF in the middle of what has turned into one of the most tumultuous and unpredictable elections in recent French history. Not unlike the role played by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with its probe into the emails of U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the PNF’s investigation, the trickling out of many of its findings and Fillon’s being charged in mid-March with misuse of public funds, has left the judiciary playing an unprecedented part in the election.

“The PNF has been a major protagonist in the unfolding drama of this presidential election,” said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Aston University in Birmingham, England, who still noted that the Canard report was the biggest cause of Fillon’s woes. “Never before has such a process been played out and such a verdict delivered in the full glare of the media during a presidential campaign.”

Fillon, 63, went from a clear favorite to facing the possibility of being eliminated from the May 7 runoff. With less than a week to go before the first round of the vote, the French race remains wide open. The four top contenders -- the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, centrist Emmanuel Macron, Republican Fillon and the Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon -- are all within striking distance of getting enough votes on April 23 to make it to the runoff in France’s two-stage election.

Spotlight on PNF

The investigation has also turned the spotlight on the PNF, which until now was far from a household name in France. In spite of the high-profile cases it has handled since its creation three years ago -- such as the tax-fraud dossiers of UBS Group AG to HSBC Holdings Plc -- few French people are aware of this arm of the judiciary.

“Most people didn’t even know the Parquet National Financier existed,” Pascal Jan, a law professor at Science Po Bordeaux, said in an interview.

The PNF was set up in 2014 after President Francois Hollande’s budget minister Jerome Cahuzac, tasked with cracking down on fiscal fraud, was forced to resign after a media report exposed how he was avoiding taxes with a secret Swiss account.

The head of the PNF, 64-year-old Eliane Houlette, has said her goal is to make the unit’s public enforcement action “homogeneous, visible and coherent” and internationally recognized.

Fillon Complains

Three years on, legal experts agree the PNF is making a name for itself outside of France. Its latest feat was to refuse last month a nine-figure offer from UBS to settle a tax-fraud case, leading investigators to order a trial that may leave the Swiss bank open to a fine of as much as 4.9 billion euros.

That reputation didn’t stop the Fillon camp from accusing the PNF of being politically motivated in going after him. Fillon has complained about the leaks in the press of the minutes of his questioning.

Prior to being charged, or “mis en examen” as the process is called in French, Fillon faced a steady stream of negative news. In addition to fresh revelations about the employment of two of his children as aides when he was serving in the French Senate, weekly Le Journal du Dimanche reported that Fillon supposedly received tailor-made suits worth about 50,000 euros as gifts.

Elements of the probe kept Fillon in the news and weighed on the popularity of the candidate who had campaigned on his image of irreproachable integrity. The investigation led to the defection of key supporters and an aborted attempt from rival Republicans to topple him.

‘Doing Its Job’

As the probe intensified, Fillon, who had first welcomed the investigation, saying it would put an end to the Canard’s unfounded accusations, soon went on the offensive. He said the speed with which the PNF proceeded was evidence it was part of a conspiracy to take him out of the presidential race.

The PNF is not politically motivated and is doing exactly what it was mandated to do, according to Jacky Coulon, the secretary general of a magistrates’ union.

“The PNF just did its job,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t its goal to make Fillon drop in poll ratings. It’s in the PNF’s DNA to go as fast as possible to get answers. Previously, these kinds of cases weren’t being dealt with in a reasonable time frame due to a lack of means.”

The PNF has been moving faster on cases in a country that has a track record for being slow. It took the financial prosecutor about the same time in the Fillon case -- a day -- as it did to begin an investigation into allegations a Panama law firm set up shell companies to help politicians and international criminals conceal their riches. The PNF was just as quick to open an investigation into possible tax avoidance by soccer stars, coaches and their managers following the publication of a leak across Europe.

Democratic Debate

Had Fillon withdrawn from the race, the PNF would have played a decisive role in bringing that about, Aston University’s Shields said. But Fillon is still in the race. If he is elected president, the case will be put on hold while he is in office.

“If he performs strongly and gets to the second round, the PNF’s role in hampering him for a time will be largely forgotten,” Shields said. “If he is beaten in the first round, we might expect his criticisms of over-zealous judges to resurface.”

While the quality of the debate suffered from the investigation taking up most of the media space, it could have been worse had the case gone slower, according to Science Po Bordeaux’s Jan. Fillon would likely still be facing a minute-by-minute press account of his legal woes and little would be said about the his platform, he said.

“Imagine if the probe had begun two weeks ago,” Jan said. “February would have become April and there would have be no debate whatsoever about the political issues.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.