Likely next French president pays wife €500k: So what? This is France

The man favourite to be the next president of France and his British wife were engulfed in scandal on Wednesday, but it’s unlikely to change much in a country used to politicians’ financial wrongdoings.

Likely next French president pays wife €500k: So what? This is France
Photo: AFP

“Up until now, I have never been involved in the political life of my husband”, said Welsh born Penelope Fillon in October last year as she joined her husband on the campaign trail.

But according to the Canard Enchainé, the French newspaper known for dropping a few grenades into the lives of politicians, that statement might have been a little bit inaccurate.

The newspaper claims that Madame Fillon, who has been described as the “woman in the shadows”, was in fact paid as much as half a million euros of public money, to be employed first as her husband’s parliamentary assistant and then as a helper to one of her husband’s own aides.

Nothing illegal so far, as Fillon's people point out, except the paper alleges they could find no evidence of Penelope “being involved in the political life” of her husband. Other parliamentary aides claim never to have seen her. 

Given the fact she’s British born the scandal enveloping the woman known as Penny and her husband has naturally made headlines on both sides of the Channel.

You can’t help but think that if a British politician running to be Prime Minister was found to have paid his or her French partner half a million quid to allegedly do, well, apparently not much, it would mark the end of their chances of getting into Downing Street. The tabloids would circle like vultures until the kill.

“But this is France,” political analyst Bruno Cautres from the Cevipov think tank tells The Local. “It’s not that much of a scandal because we’ve seen much worse than this.”

It’s worth a reminder that only a few months ago in France a former budget minister employed to fight against tax evasion was handed a jail sentence for… wait for it… tax evasion.

“We are in France, there are around 50 MPs who employ their wives, or children, or no doubt mistresses. It’s something we know exists, even if it needs reforming.”

In other words don’t expect François Fillon to issue a mea culpa and stand aside before disappearing into the “shadows” along with his wife, when he looks set to become the next president, according to opinion polls.

“He won’t pull out. He’s been elected in the primary. They could not afford that now,” says Cautres.

“All this confirms to the French people is what they already knew: politicians are good at telling them what to do, but not good at doing it themselves,” says Cautres.

In a recent survey by Cevipov it was revealed that 75 percent of French people believe their politicians are corrupt and not honest, Cautres says.

So while the hashtag #PenelopeGate was doing a roaring trade on Twitter on Wednesday as France’s social media masses both ridiculed and lambasted Fillon, they will probably quickly move on to a new scandal.

The reaction of most of the centre-right politicians in France has been to tell the media essentially: “nothing to see here, move on now please”. They refer to it as a “stink ball” (boule puante) typically dropped during election campaigns.

They blame the scandal not on Fillon or the system that allows MPs to legally employ wives, sons or daughters as aides, but on the fact that France is in the middle of an election campaign, and mud-slinging is just part of it.

Fillon himself says he won't even comment and blasted the “disdain and misogyny” of the media reports.

Cautres however accepts that Fillon won’t emerge totally unscathed given that he has declared war on wasteful public spending.

“There’s no doubt it’s bad for Fillon’s image as a self-proclaimed Mr Clean. It doesn’t look good after he has been telling the French of the need to be strict with finances and to respect the rules around debt and deficit.

“Half a million euros is a lot of money, especially in the economic context of France,” he added, noting that it comes at a time when Fillon's popularity seems to be taking a hit.

For Cautres the story in the Canard Enchainé is a sign that the battle to be the next president has really begun in earnest.

“The race starts now,” he said.

Fillon might have just given Marine Le Pen a decent head start.

That's the same Marine Le Pen who apparently owes the EU parliament €340,000 that was illegally paid to her aides.

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Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”