France election analysis: Fillon goes rogue in family melodrama

Corruption scandal consumes conservative nominee weeks before voting begins

The political family that Gen Charles de Gaulle founded with the Fifth Republic in 1958 has descended into an absurd melodrama in which François Fillon, the presidential nominee for the conservative Les Républicains (LR), has become a rogue candidate, abandoned by all but a handful of close associates and the party’s most right-wing supporters.

Libération newspaper's "deserters' meter" lists 305 elected officials and campaign workers who have dissociated themselves from Fillon's candidacy.

Six weeks into “Penelopegate”, the corruption scandal in which Fillon stands accused of employing his wife and two children for fake jobs at public expense, opinion polls indicate he will be eliminated in the first round of the election on April 23rd.

A March 17th deadline for the final list of candidates is looming and Fillon's erstwhile rivals for the LR nomination, former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé, are trying to persuade him to withdraw from the race.


A revival of Juppé’s candidacy had been the best last hope of the French right. Juppé (71) was supposed to be the adult in the room, the man who would blow the whistle and shout, “Stop. Recess is over.”

Juppé dashed those hopes on Monday, in a lugubrious seven-minute statement in which he said he has excluded "once and for all" the possibility of standing for the presidency. His assessment of the state of France and the presidential campaign was lucid and despairing.

After criticising the extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen and the Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, Juppé said: "As for us, the right and the centre,what a mess." Fillon's "denunciation of an alleged plot and political assassination have led him to an impasse," he added.

Juppé regretted Fillon’s “obstinacy” and the fact that “the core of LR militants and supporters has become radicalised.”

Replacement candidate

If Fillon’s replacement is too moderate, LR voters risk turning to Le Pen. And if the new candidate is too right-wing, other LR voters will transfer their vote to Macron.

Fillon would have to be persuaded to abandon the campaign of his own accord. If he is seen to be the victim of a coup there is a risk his supporters would then back Le Pen.

As of Sunday night, Fillon showed no sign of giving up. He told France 2 television he “saw no reason” to withdraw. “No one today can prevent me being candidate . . . I was chosen democratically . . . It is not the party that will decide.”

Commentators are beginning to question Fillon’s mental stability. He has spoken of “France on the edge of civil war”, “theft” and a “coup” against him. He claimed television stations reported the suicide of his wife Penelope. They did not.

In a Trump-like denial of reality, Fillon claimed 200,000 people attended his rally on Sunday. His own aides said before the rally that the square could hold only 45,000 people.

Fillon is known to watch US television series on Netflix. In the columns of Libération and L'Opinion, his associates speculated that he sees himself as the fictional US president Frank Underwood in House of Cards, or as the cabinet minister who becomes president after a terrorist attack in Designated Survivor.

Mean and sexist

An interview with Penelope Fillon and a summary of 19 interrogations conducted by police investigators, published by the Journal du Dimanche, gave the impression that Fillon is mean and sexist. He cut the salary of Nathalie Blin, his actual parliamentary assistant, by 50 per cent when he "hired" his wife in 1998.

It was Fillon who asked a millionaire friend to "hire" Penelope as a literary adviser, and who decided her monthly salary would be €5,000. She had another "job" at the same time as assistant to Mr Fillon's successor at the National Assembly. Again, it was Fillon who asked that she be hired, and who dictated her salary.

When she was his assistant at the senate, the Fillons’s daughter Marie was paid by French taxpayers to research a book for which François Fillon collected the royalties. And when Marie was replaced by the Fillons’s son Charles, the salary was raised by €1,000 a month, apparently because Charles is male.

Penelope Fillon is a soft-spoken, shy woman from Wales who cleared the table after a take-out lunch with journalists in her lawyer’s office. She said she was aware of rumours that she did not even know about the monthly salary she received for years from the assembly.

“I knew,” she said. “I studied law and literature. I was shocked that people could think I was an ignorant fool.”

The first time she saw the word Penelopegate in print, Penelope Fillon said she “felt I’d been struck by lightning. It’s the worst thing that’s happened in my life.”