Fillon reaffirms his austerity plan for France… or is it a ‘purge’?

The embattled François Fillon reaffirmed on Monday how he plans to revive France, including ending the 35-hour work week and cutting 500,000 public sector jobs. Opponents have slammed his project as a “purge”.

Fillon reaffirms his austerity plan for France... or is it a 'purge'?
Photo: AFP

Fillon, who is expected to be charged this week over the fake jobs scandal that has derailed his election campaign, unveiled “Project Fillon” at a press conference on Monday.

Fillon has promised in the past a complete “rupture” in order to shake France’s economy out of the doldrums and on Monday he reaffirmed several of his most controversial plans for France.

In a promise that may anger French voters, Fillon promised transparency for all MPs and will force them to make public any family links they have to their parliamentary assistants.

To “prevent conflicts of interest and (ensure) the proper use of public funds”, ministers would be required to sign a code of conduct, the Republicans candidate said.

Vowing to move quickly, he promised: “Within the first weeks, everyone in France will see that something unprecedented is happening.”

Notably Fillon is sticking by his plan to ditch France’s famous 35-hour work week by gradually raising it to 39 hours in the public sector. In the private sector Fillon says companies should be free to set their own working hours through negotiations with workers.

In order to get the country going again “the French are going to have to work a little more”, Fillon said. That may be hard to swallow for many French voters given the allegations that his wife earned hundreds of thousands of euros over several years in a fake role as his parliamentary assistant.

Another controversial plan, Fillon confirmed is his intention to raise France’s retirement age to 65.

Fillon has been dubbed the French Maggie Thatcher and wants to “pull down the house and rebuild it” – the spirit of how Margaret Thatcher reformed the UK in the 1980s.

Part of pulling down the house is Fillon’s promise to delete 500,000 public sector jobs as well as make some €100 billion worth of savings over five years.

He also wants to hike VAT so he can reduce the social charges employers must pay and scrap the country’s fortune tax on the ultra wealthy.

Fillon wants to create a “France of entrepreneurs” and “unlock the main obstacles” facing companies. He plans to reduce the corporation tax rates and also make it easier for companies to lay off workers.

In order to reduce the power of France’s trade unions, negotiations between employees and bosses will take place first and foremost at a company level.

His plans once again provoked a storm among critics who believe it is more like a “purge”  than a project to boost the country's economy.

READ ALSO: Does France really need Thatcherism à la Fillon?

Earlier on Monday Fillon complained that he was the target of a “witch hunt” by journalists after revelations that a wealthy friend had bought him luxury suits worth thousands of euros.

Fillon is still reeling from a media exposé in January which brought to light how he had used public funds to pay his wife and children hundreds of thousands of euros for suspected fake jobs as parliamentary assistants.

“I am the target of such a number of attacks that I can't consider them anything other than a sort of witch hunt, a kind of campaign against me,” the former prime minister told Europe 1 radio on Monday morning.

“What could explain that hundreds of journalists, at the very least dozens, go through my garbage to find out about my suits. Tomorrow it will be my shirts and then why not my underpants as well?” he added.

The Journal du Dimanche newspaper claimed Sunday that an anonymous benefactor had paid nearly 48,500 euros ($51,800) for clothing for Fillon from the jet-set tailor Arnys since 2012.



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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.”