With the list of official candidates now almost complete, France is now firmly in the middle of the presidential election campaign. But as the former favorite François Fillon fights for his political life, the scene doesn’t look anything like the one political observers had expected.
For much of the campaign, Fillon’s advantage in the polls seemed so untouchable that German Chancellor Angela Merkel even met with him in Berlin last week. But this was before “L’affaire Penelope” struck, and struck hard. In January, satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaine claimed that for eight years, Fillon gave his wife Penelope a very well paid job as a parliamentary assistant – as well as employing two of his children on occasion – at a cost of nearly €1 million ($1.08 million).
Although it is not illegal in France for MPs to employ partners and family members, his wife’s salary – more than twice the usual rate – and the fact that she was hardly seen in her parliamentary office, has triggered an official embezzlement investigation.
Fillon has vigorously denied any wrongdoing, saying: “Never in the history of the Fifth Republic has such an operation of very professional slander been launched in an attempt to eliminate a candidate.”
He also said that he would pull out of the race if found guilty of misconduct, but his popularity has already plummeted in the polls. In November 2016, 54 percent of French people said they had a good opinion of him, down to only 38 percent in a poll run Friday.
The fates of several other candidates have also surprised the electorate. The extreme right-wing leader Marine Le Pen was always certain to run – almost every poll taken in the last year has showed that the National Front candidate will probably come on top in the first round but lose in the second round. Most French people then expected former President Nicolas Sarkozy to run for the French right and current President François Hollande to seek re-election on behalf of the French left.
However, ballots for the Republican Party (LR) and the Socialist Party (PS) – both open to all French citizens – reset the whole political agenda. In November, the primaries indicated that what voters most wanted was to remove Sarkozy from the race and, in December, Hollande announced he would not be running again.
Fillon, Sarkozy’s former prime minister, easily beat 70 year-old Alain Juppé in the second round. Fillon’s victory stunned the country, who expected Juppé to comfortably claim victory.
Finally, on Sunday, left-wing outsider Benoît Hamon beat former Prime Minister Manuel Valls to become the socialist candidate. This was another surprising victory, one which caused a huge upset in French political classes.
This complete rejection of the old guard means the current candidates have had to quickly adjust. The right, under Fillon, has changed face. During the campaign, Fillon has not shied away from regularly affirming his Catholic beliefs, something rarely seen in secular France where religion is not normally raised in politics. He has also distanced himself from the traditional right by saying that he would slash half a million jobs in the public sector and limit the number of services usually paid for by France’s generous National Health System.
Fillon has also indicated that if he wins, he will implement a complete overhaul of French foreign policy – most notably suggesting a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The socialist candidate Hamon is also shuffling his cards. His controversial stance on secularism, which he has said Muslims might be exempt from, his plan for a universal wage of 750€ ($806) for all, and a proposal to legalize cannabis all put him firmly on the utopian side of the left.
However, this being France, there is an even more left-wing candidate than Hamon in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former socialist and the current candidate for the Communist Party. A great orator, Mélenchon is credited with garnering 10% of the votes in the first round and should fragment the socialist vote even further.
All this, of course, is music to the ears of Emmanuel Macron, François Hollande’s former economy minister, who is campaigning on a liberal and centrist programme. In a rather original twist on the current struggle of rising dissatisfaction in many western democracies, France finds itself torn between the rise of populism in the form of Le Pen and the rise of centrism as represented by Macron.
A Sofres poll published Sunday by the French daily newspaper Le Figaro signalled that Macron would win on the second round of the election whether he faces Le Pen or Fillon.
But none of this is certain in a race which has defied convention at every turn, and an unexpected announcement made Thursday by Wikileaks could prove even these most nervous of predictions wrong too.
The whistle-blowing site announced that they have leaked documents concerning the three main candidates in the presidential election. After the damage that Hillary Clinton’s campaign suffered in the U.S. after hacked emails were released by Wikileaks, the French candidates (especially Fillon) will be fervently hoping to avoid such a fate.