French Race Blown Wide Open as Le Pen, Macron Wait in Wings

  • Newspaper reports Fillon employed two children as senate aides
  • Canard report also raises amount wife earned to 900,000 euros

Is Political Risk Premium in Europe Too High?

Francois Fillon’s French presidential campaign plunged deeper into trouble on Tuesday after further revelations about his use of public funds to employ members of his family.

The Republican candidate’s daughter and son allegedly earned 84,000 euros ($91,000) from 2005 to 2007 while working for him when he was a Senator, Le Canard Enchaine said. His wife, Penelope Fillon, earned more than 900,000 euros during over a decade as a parliamentary assistant and a contributor to a magazine while doing little actual work, according to Le Canard.

The newspaper’s initial report on Penelope’s job last week triggered a prosecutor to open a preliminary probe into the family’s affairs. It’s not illegal to hire relatives for public posts in France, so long as they perform their duties. The candidate says he’s innocent.

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

The scandal has gripped France over the last week and offers the prospect of another twist in a race that has the nationalist Marine Le Pen leading the polls and has already seen household names like President Francois Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, fall by the wayside. That said, polls show that Le Pen is still a long shot for victory in the second round of voting, with Emmanuel Macron also poised to benefit -- at least in the short term -- from Fillon’s woes.

“His image has been seriously damaged, and what’s worrying for him is that even among his supporters many are not convinced,” said Yves-Marie Cann, director of political studies at pollster Elabe in Paris. “The fire is not contained.”

For an explainer on the Fillon scandal, click here

Cann said it’s almost certain the next round of polling will show Fillon has lost support, though it’s too early to judge whether the main beneficiary will be independent centrist Macron or the anti-European Union Le Pen. Fillon’s initial attempts to explain his way out of the growing scandal were deemed unconvincing by three-quarters of the French, a poll said.

“Francois Fillon is innocent, but the media pressure is such that the French have condemned him,” Fillon’s spokesman Benoist Apparu said LCP television. “It’s totally unjust.” Fillon’s campaign team and the Republican party declined requests for comment.

Tackling Le Pen

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 has been the establishment’s leading candidate in the battle to stop Le Pen’s populist campaign to seize the presidency and lead France out of the euro. He won the Republicans’ primary boasting that he had the irreproachable integrity required to lead the country.

While polls show Le Pen leading in the first round of voting, they’ve recently shown Macron close on Fillon’s heels for the April 23 first round of voting. Surveys also suggest that Le Pen would lose heavily to either Macron or Fillon in the May 7 run-off.

Police Interrogation

A Kantar Sofres poll released Monday in Le Figaro showed about 22 percent of voters now back Fillon for the first round of voting, leaving him just one point ahead of Macron and three behind Le Pen. Before the inquiry, Fillon was considered the favorite to be France’s next president.

Investigators on Tuesday searched for documents at the National Assembly, a day after Fillon and his wife were separately questioned for about five hours by the police as part of the probe. The presidential candidate was “happy to defend his honor,” Antonin Levy, Fillon’s lawyer, said on BFM television. A parliamentary job’s assistant is often “less tangible” than other types of work, Levy added.

Marc Joulard, who replaced Fillon at the National Assembly, was also questioned, Agence France-Presse reported. Investigators have searched the offices of Revue des Deux Mondes, the magazine that Penelope Fillon contributed to, and interviewed the magazine’s former director and its owner, billionaire Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere.

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