The French presidential campaign is in complete disarray. The governing French Socialist Party has eliminated its chances of winning by nominating a slick eco-leftist, Benôit Hamon, instead of the former prime minister, Manuel Valls. Hamon's platform in France's unemployment-rich, slow-growth economy is a universal minimum income, reducing the work week to thirty-two hours over four days and full-speed ahead on sustainable development.
On the right, the National Front's leader, Marine Le Pen, was overtaken a month ago as the front-runner by the unexpectedly surging candidacy of Republican Party candidate François Fillon. Polls suddenly indicated Fillon was a sure winner in the May election against either Le Pen, whichever French Socialist candidate was nominated, or the upstart Emanuel Macron, also a slick performer but a business-oriented pragmatist, a former Goldman Sachs banker who quit as the Valls government's minister of the economy to run as an independent.
In only the past few days, however, Fillon's candidacy is teetering on the precipice. He stands accused in the press of corruption involving fraud and misuse of public funds, criminal offenses punishable by prison time and large fines. The accusations emerge from revelations by the revered French newspaper, Le Canard enchainé, which is a broadsheet filled with scathing, often hilarious satire yet also the most serious investigative journalism in modern French history, reaching back to World War 1. This would not be the first time the Canard has brought down high-flyers.
The issue is that Fillon over most of twenty years, 1998-2017, employed his wife, Penelope, as a parliamentary assistant, either working for Fillon himself or, while he was government minister and then prime minister 2002-2007, for his replacement as deputy.
A complication is that Fillon also employed two of his children 2005-2007 as parliamentary assistants, because, he says, they were lawyers. This has already been shown to be false. They were law students but not yet lawyers.
Mme. Fillon (who is Welsh), was paid a total of more than 800,000 euros over this period (about $1 million), while the two children were paid 57,000 euros and 26,600 euros respectively.
A further problem involving Mme. Fillon is that in 2012-2013 she was paid 100,000 euros at the well-known literary journal La Revue des deux mondes for which she apparently wrote only a few short book reviews. The deal was apparently fixed by the Revue's owner, who is a political ally of Fillon. Its editor-in-chief says that this was another no-show job. If Fillon made a deal, his wife is liable for conspiracy to cover-up and being paid as the product of a crime.
It's easy to jump to conclusions about these accusations of corruption and Fillon's political adversaries and a large part of French public opinion already assume he's guilty. His reputation as the conservative moral force among the candidates is shredding and he's sinking fast in the polls. Others in his party, "Les républicains," (the Republican Party) are scrambling around for a quick replacement for him if he becomes a lost cause.
Fillon's giving a job to his wife and children would be nepotism in the U.S., an illegal use of public money. But in France it's not illegal, in fact it's a long-standing tradition. According to one of Fillon's surrogates, ninety-one current deputies in the French parliament employ one or more members of their family!
The issue is whether Mme. Fillon's job was real or no-show, whether she actually did the work for which she was paid. It's the same with the children.
If the appropriate French authority decides to investigate the matter, that will be the substance of it.
Fillon has alleged a political conspiracy of his enemies. For example, why did the Canard publish these accusations now, only three months before the presidential election? How and when did the Canard get this information? Why haven't other deputies been outed?
He says that his wife helped draft his speeches, saw constituents and others he had no time to see and represented him at various events and also did press summaries. Critics note there's little evidence of her work. For example, she doesn't have an email account connected with this work and doesn't have a badge of entry to the National Assembly. It's reasonable to suspect that other deputies are providing no-show jobs to family members.
But the National Assembly's rules on employing assistants are vague. In effect, any deputy such as Fillon is the master of what constitutes legitimate work in his office. It will be difficult to prove in court that his wife didn't do real work even if there's no paper trail.
Nonetheless, Fillon has a target on his back. Le Pen wants him out of the race because in a runoff ballot contest between the far-right and the conservative right, he would rally a left-right majority against her. Macron's chance increases if a weaker Republican candidate is necessary.
And pity the poor French left. The Socialists have no chance to win at all, and the far eco-anti-capitalist left adds to the disaster by running its own candidate basically to show the flag.
In the two-ballot French electoral system, the odds are still high that Le Pen won't win. Given Fillon's problems, Macron's chances have improved.
However this may be, French presidential politics have reached a nadir when Marine Le Pen is the only convincing candidate.