Political corruption in France is common, and usually – if the politician is at or near the top of the political game – unpunished by law. Yet the 2017 presidential election may mark something of a revolt against a semi-aristocratic disdain for the public whose tax euros have long been plundered for private or party use.
Francois Fillon, who trained in the law, has been a politician since his late 20s. Now 63, he rose steadily through the ranks of the centre right until 2007, when he became prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy.
He survived there for five years and was seen as a president-in-waiting: experienced, Catholic, with five children by his Welsh wife Penelope, professing a devotion to jolt the country out of its economic stasis.
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Then the pesky press spoiled everything. Le Canard Enchaîné, the muckraking weekly, revealed last month that Fillon had employed Penelope as his parliamentary assistant for many years – and she had apparently done little or nothing. The paper then brought two of his children into the affair, raising the alleged family payroll to nearly 1 million euros ($1.06 million). Fillon has blamed the media and political enemies for his campaign crisis, proclaimed innocence but also apologized for employing his wife as an aide – and fights on.
But he’s wounded, ironically most of all by his wife and by himself. Penelope gave an interview to Britain’s Telegraph in 2007 in which she said her children know her as “just a mother” and, referring to Fillon’s elevation to the premiership, said that “people ask what my new role is but there isn't one”. Fillon also said, during the contest for the nomination, that “There is no point talking about authority when one personally has not been beyond reproach”, a statement directed at Sarkozy. By Fillon’s own statement, he may be unable to lead France.
Yet the centre right seems to believe that, however damaged, it has no one else. A meeting of party elders on Monday unanimously supported Fillon, and vowed to relaunch his faltering campaign. It’s possible that his wife’s interview this past weekend, in which she affirmed that her job was real, may on closer examination turn out to be true. It’s also possible that, in the nearly seven weeks that remain before voting in the first round of the election on April 23, the issue will have cooled. But for the moment, it seems another instance of a system where even the apparently non-sleazy politicians are compromised.
Corruption has dogged the modern French presidency since Charles de Gaulle resigned in 1969, and it has appeared to accelerate in the past few decades – or at any rate, has become more public. It is also high profile: because the French presidency is so powerful, all political and foreign claimants for attention and benefits seek a channel to the Elysée Palace. Favors are exchanged – some routine political horse-trading, others more venal.
Valery Giscard d’Estaing, president from 1974 to1981, was revealed, again by the Canard Enchaîné, as having received large gifts of diamonds from Jean-Bedel Bokassa, former head of the Central African Republic. (He said he had sold the jewels, and given money to charities in the country.)
Jacques Chirac, president from 1995 to 2007, was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzling public funds to finance the party he led as the mayor of Paris. Chirac, who did not attend the trial because of “memory loss”, said in a statement that he contested the conviction “categorically” but that he would not appeal because he lacked the “required strength” to face a new trial.
Sarkozy, the president Fillon served, was encircled by scandals throughout his presidency – including allegations that aides and close allies had benefitted from kickbacks from the sale of submarines to Pakistan in 1994. (He has denied these claims.) Closer to his office were allegations that he had received illegal funding from the l’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman – herself accused of large-scale tax evasion – this last imbroglio revealed by another pesky news organization, the investigative website Mediapart.
And last year, while preparing his new presidential bid, Sarkozy was placed under investigation for "suspected illegal financing of an election campaign for a candidate, who went beyond the legal limit for electoral spending". He has denied he was aware of the overspending.
Sarkozy’s successor, the still-sitting socialist president François Hollande, appears to have made a break with this catalogue of alleged corruptions: his scandals have been sexual and – in a departure from the past vow of press silence over high political trespasses – splashed across front pages.
But some of his ministers were not so financially abstemious: early in his presidency, the budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, after denying the report by Mediapart, confessed that he had used a Swiss account to hold 600,000 euros ($775,000 on the exchange rate of the time). Imprudent but not illegal and less damagingly, Hollande’s friend and election campaign treasurer, Jean-Jacques Augier, was revealed to have invested in offshore businesses in the Cayman Islands.
Why should it get better? First, the current leader in the polls for the first round of voting, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, is accused by the European Union’s fraud office of using over 300,000 euros from the EU’s parliamentary budget to pay her party staff: she won’t repay, she says, and hasn't seemed to suffer in the polls because of it. Her supporters, like her, don't like the EU.
The man who has now overtaken Fillon as Le Pen’s main challenger, the 39-year-old former Socialist Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, has created a new centrist party, En Marche! (“Forward!”). Though he held the unpopular job of investment banker at Rothschild & Co, he has been lauded in the news media, and no hint of financial impropriety has appeared.
Le Pen appeals to an electorate, often working class, angered by political corruption. Macron’s main appeal is to a cosmopolitan, highly educated middle class, many of whom, young or younger than he is, are no longer prepared to shrug and say “Ca va comme ça” (So it goes). French journalism – not just Le Canard Enchaîné and Mediapart – is much more energised by corruption scandals.
The centrist, Macron, is presently favoured to win in the second round of the presidential election in May. With apparently no scandalous baggage, with a new untainted party, with the backing of a country no longer prepared to shrug, he may try to change a culture. It will be a long job, though. Corruption, when a way of life, is tenacious.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and "Journalism in an Age of Terror,” which will be published this month by I. B. Tauris. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.