Kill The Scandal Before It Kills You

16th Feb.
Albane De Rochebrune
16th Feb.
Albane De Rochebrune

French Presidential Candidate François Fillon has been mired in a scandal involving his wife. Will this lead to his demise and leave the right-wing to choose between Le Pen and Macron? Grave times are ahead for France.

5 Mins (1211 Words)

In November 2016, François Fillon, surprised many with his victory in the French primary elections. The primary election system itself has been widely criticised by political observers. They see the process as divisive. But as we have argued on these pages before, the primaries weren’t that revolutionary at all - they enabled right-wing voters to have a right-wing candidate. A candidate whose economic program aims to challenge a stuttering and rigid labour market system. A candidate whose social policies reflect the usual French right-wing values.

Until ‘Penelopegate’ broke out, he was the embodiment of a real choice for right-wing voters, who displayed a visceral disdain for Nicolas Sarkozy’s style, and a deep-rooted mistrust against an out-of-touch and tepid Alain Juppé.

François Fillon became a politician in 1981, despite this, he has found a unique recipe to distinguish himself from “the establishment. Until ‘Penelopegate’ broke out, he was the embodiment of a real choice for right-wing voters, who displayed a visceral disdain for Nicolas Sarkozy’s style, and a deep-rooted mistrust against an out-of-touch and tepid Alain Juppé. For the analysts who listened closely to his statements, Fillon was one of the best bulwarks against the Front National, not a dangerous conservative bigot many have characterised him as.

But then it all went very wrong for Monsieur Fillon. On January 25th, the satirical newspaper Canard Enchainé exposed ‘Penelopegate’. They revealed Fillon had employed his wife for vast sums of money, for apparently doing very little. In a few hours, one of the main pillars of Fillon’s sales pitch to the French public – his integrity – collapsed. It is interesting to note, that while these kinds of attacks have done little to change the minds of supporters of populist politicians such as Le Pen, Trump or Farage, Fillon’s supporters are different. They of course share the same fatigue of broken promises and a self-serving elite. However, they are also demanding transparency from their champion. Le Pen, on the other hand, can continue to wriggle out of controversy by hiding behind the disruptive anti-establishment mindset of her supporters.

As debatable as his plan is, François Fillon is perceived as ready to do a job that right-wing voters have been desperate to see implemented for decades.

Naturally, ‘Penelopegate’ has cast serious doubt in the minds of many right-wing voters about Fillon’s candidacy. They have good reason to be alarmed by the potential consequences of this scandal: losing the next presidential election. It is worth remembering that Fillon’s campaign has relied on another key argument: a rescue plan for France. As debatable as his plan is, François Fillon is perceived as ready to do a job that right-wing voters have been desperate to see implemented for decades. “Faire” – the title of his 2015 book – literally means “to do”. And that is probably the biggest fear amongst French voters who intended to vote for Fillon: nothing will be done over the next five years and France cannot afford it.

To many voters’ dismay, Fillon’s initial communications strategy after the Canard Enchainé’s article was a disaster. His interview on TF1 did not allay immediate concerns, and many of his arguments were immediately rebutted by simple facts raised by the media. His proclaimed innocence became less and less credible as further revelations were published daily. Falsehoods, approximations and contradictions are the best way to fail at managing such a crisis. Additionally, dissenting voices were quickly heard among “Les Républicains” calling for his replacement in the presidential race. So far, Fillon has managed to keep them relatively under control, but for how long?

From a communications standpoint, belated progress was made on February 6th.  Fillon gave a press conference where he skillfully clarified his statement on the facts and on his previous contradictions. Most importantly, while emphasising his innocence in regard to the law and the commonality of such practices, he apologised for actions that are not morally acceptable anymore i.e. hiring a member of your family as a parliamentary assistant. For a few days, this press conference appeared to have stopped the haemorrhage. But the most recent polls – as reliable as polls can be nowadays - have shown Fillon bowing out in the first round. So what does ‘Penelopegate’ say about the French electorate and current discourse in French politics?

The point is that, the legal and the moral aspects must be separated.

While many have lazily defended Fillon on the principle of “Everybody does that”, it is much more troubling that the presumption of innocence was ignored by most of the French press. This is especially worrying as 2.9 million voters chose him as their candidate in November. This fundamental right certainly does not mean that he is untouchable. Being the candidate of the right does not protect him from press scrutiny. However, his prominent role in France’s political landscape should encourage journalists to be cautious and self-demanding.

The French fiscal and social system structurally creates opportunities to legally drain the public coffers at every level

The point is that, the legal and the moral aspects must be separated. He apologised for hiring a relative as his assistant, which is not illegal by law. In no case is this apology equivalent to a confession of guilt. And yet, this is how ‘Penelopegate’ has been sold to the public. Facts and allegations are interchangeable.

A practice that is morally dubious but common and legal, has become the ‘ultimate crime’ in only a few days. In Les Echos, Gaspard Koenig raised a legitimate question: “Who has never embezzled public money?”. He reminded readers that French public spending represents 57% of the national growth, that there are over 449 tax loopholes, that any French student can claim a substantial housing grant independently of their parents’ revenues, that active and retired journalists benefit from free entrance to museums and cinemas, and that most farmers survive on the EU subsidies. In other words, the French fiscal and social system structurally creates opportunities to legally drain the public coffers at every level.

For the past three weeks, nothing has been debated

‘Penelopegate’ outlines a fundamental issue within the French media landscape and their supposed partisanship. This of course is not new. And yet, in an increasingly volatile international discourse, shaped by populism and mass discontent, the “quatrième pouvoir” has tremendous responsibility. The timing of the revelations is obviously not a coincidence. Emmanuel Macron has allegedly diverted 120.000 Euros from the Finance Ministry into pre-campaign fees – an allegation he vehemently denies – but these allegations have gained less traction in the media. This double standard is shocking.

In two months, the French people will choose their next President. But for the past three weeks, nothing has been debated about how to tackle the 10% unemployment rate or how to give the French economy a desperately needed new lease of life. Nothing has been discussed about education, globalisation or international affairs. Currently, Marine Le Pen is predicted to win the first round in every poll, while Emmanuel Macron struggles with presenting detailed policies.

If the French public are to be presented with a proper choice, ‘Penelopegate’ needs to come to a conclusion, and fast. Otherwise the election will be shrouded in accusations and counter-accusations, tawdry gossip and insults. As Hillary Clinton recently learned, if you can’t kill the scandal, the scandal will kill you.

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