The presidential campaign for Francois Fillon looks more and more like an endless ordeal as the Republican candidate learned on Wednesday that he would be indicted over a range of charges including embezzlement. Fillon is accused of helping himself to hundreds of thousands of euros worth of taxpayers’ cash by setting up a series of fake jobs for his wife and children.
The right wing candidate, who interestingly enough won his party’s primary elections by boasting of an alleged spotless track record of integrity, will face the judges on March 15. His words during the primary elections debates now resonate awkwardly as he then belittled his opponents – Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppe who both struggled with a loaded judicial past – by trumpeting that it was “immoral” to run for presidency after a previous indictment.
A few weeks ago, Fillon had tried to wash away the accusation and reassure his supporters, ensuring he would drop the race if indicted. Yet promises only bind those who believe in them and Fillon reaffirmed his candidacy yesterday. In a speech characterized by a martial posture against the French justice he portrayed himself as a victim that would not surrender.
This strategy is dangerous for the Republican Party and several political allies have started to take their distance and suspend their support to Fillon. It is ironically the exact strategy adopted by the current frontrunner towards the first round of the presidential elections: Marine Le Pen. The National Front leader, known for her xenophobic political platform, is also cornered by a series of judicial investigations.
The National Front is currently under investigation for an embezzlement case of even greater magnitude as 29 people have been hired with the European Parliamentary Assistant budget to work in reality exclusively for Le Pen’s party. This prejudice for the European Union reaches 7.5 million euros. In parallel, Le Pen is also under investigation for mishandling of campaign funds, multiple tax frauds on her family estate and for colluding with Russia, accepting to support the annexation of Crimea in exchange of a Russian bank loan.
Suddenly the two parties – the right wing Republican Party and the extreme right National Front – known for their regular attacks against an alleged lax justice system that would be too slow and lenient towards everyday felons, are now stalling as much as possible to benefit from parliamentary immunities or limitation periods that would help drop charges. The victimization attitude they are currently staging is the same one that they criticized when pedestrian criminals from minorities invoked racial and social profiling against them. The two presidential candidates who demanded stronger authority and crackdown on delinquents refuse to be held accountable. Marine Le Pen even officially declared she would refuse to answer to any judge’s hearing.
As a result, the French presidential campaign has turned into an episode of Law and Order as candidates devise strategies to avoid answering to justice or invoke persecution. The media attention is solely focused on the investigation calendars and candidates denial and almost mention is made of the actual candidates’ presidential programs. Opposition candidates are inaudible. Fillon’s supporters are having a hard time defending a liberal economic program calling for drastic reduction of State spending while their champion seem to have showered his family members with public funds. On the other side of the political spectrum, the socialist and communist candidate, Benoit Hamon and Jean Luc Melenchon are mainly asked question about whether Fillon should stay in the race or not.
While Fillon was considered the likely winner of the Presidential elections only a few weeks ago, his chance to qualify for the second round are now more than limited and defections multiply within his very campaign team. By frontally attacking the judicial institution, Fillon is playing a dangerous game as he will push away moderate partisan. This strategy proved efficient for extreme right parties since the 1930s, which explains why Le Pen does not lose ground in the polls, but it is counterproductive for a mainstream candidate such as Fillon who loses his presidential aura.
But Le Pen faces her own difficulties. The fact that she is also targeted by several investigations prevents her from hammering the classic extreme right discourse that the political establishment is corrupted and should be replaced by her nationalistic party.
The real beneficiary from this foul-smelling presidential campaign is 39 year old Emmanuel Macron who becomes the new favorite for this election. The repetition of scandals has discredited traditional parties and Macron made the bet to launch his own movement and position himself above the classic left-right face-off. As a result he is likely to attract part of the more moderate Republican electorate.
Macron’s weakness was the relative haziness of his economic program and the lack of depth of some of his proposals. It is likely that he would have suffered in front of political veterans such as Francois Fillon in a more traditional presidential campaign that would have required political experience and in depth mastering of societal and economic variables. However the young and short-lived economy minister is more at ease in a superficial campaign whose pace is dictated by legal revelations. Macron appears more approachable and less corrupted than his opponents, a French version of Justin Trudeau or Barack Obama, a younger, more modern politician whose campaign started as an outsider but might win it all at the end as his opponents stumble on past misbehaviors.