The presidential campaign in France is undergoing a series of twists and turns, often spectacular, sometimes violent. Traditional politics are going through a crisis and may come out rejuvenated from the turmoil. The rest of Europe is watching the developments with anxiety because its future is at stake.
By the end of February, five candidates were still in the race: François Fillon, winner of the right wing primary and candidate of Les Republicains or LR (The Republicans), Benoit Hamon, who won the Socialist primary, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, gauche de la gauche (far left), Marine Le Pen, president of the ultra right wing Front National (National Front) and Emmanuel Macron, independent, and head of the party he named, En Marche! (Let’s go!)
“Penelopegate” has been covered with glee by the media around the world. It all started with the suspicion that François Fillon had been paying his British wife Penelope for fictitious jobs as his ’employee’ for more than two decades. Until the three independent investigating judges have determined whether she did work or not, Fillon is presumed innocent. But whatever they find, the damage has been done to the candidate, who had run on the ticket of a man of integrity.
Actually Fillon is not entirely to blame, he is just a product of the system. The main problem in France is the opaque system of generous perks granted the legislators. A deputy receives about 13,000 euros monthly (base salary and allowances) and an “envlop”of 9,100 euros to pay for a maximum of five assistants parlementaires (parliamentary assistants). The British receive twice as much and the Germans 130 percent more. Members of the US Congress receive 10 times that amount and are allowed a staff of 18 people. By hiring his wife and two children, Fillon was using the privilege of nepotism to the hilt, which is increasingly unacceptable to public opinion.
He appeared even more blatantly as a member of a privileged caste when answering questions on the media. His defense strategy went through several stages. At first he appeared arrogant, bristling at any questioning of his entitlement and of his wife’s right to work (with the tax-payer’s money). Second stage: “I offer my apologies but I have done nothing wrong.” Third : “I am the victim of a conspiracy intended to destabilize my campaign ” . Fourth: “only Bercy (where the ministry of finances is located) can be the source of all the accusations.” His last resort was to ask his lawyers to discredit the financial prosecutor as not being competent to handle the case.
Marine Le Pen is in more trouble with justice than Fillon and has a number of pending lawsuits against her. She is clever enough to uses this situation to reinforce the admiration of her unshakable supporters. She is being sued for using the European parliament’s budget to pay her assistants parlementaires who should be working in Strasbourg, not in Paris. Her other cases include fraud linked to misappropriations of funds during electoral campaigns.
In a recent three-hour-long TV talk show, she displayed her skills as a sharp, articulate and smooth speaker. Answering questions fired at her from all sides. Winning arguments was no problem for her. It is hard to understand how she manages to appeal so easily to people with her populist ideas while omitting to point out the financial and economic disastrous consequences her program would have for France.
The conditions were now favorable – the right and far right candidates being embroiled with justice, a divided socialist party not likely for the first time since 1974 to reach the final ballots – for Emmanuel Macron to continue his meteoric ascent. And he is using that open road with passion. On Feb. 22, he accepted with enthusiasm the offer of a coalition from the president of the centrist MoDem (democratic movement). This was a perfect fit between François Bayrou, a politically-wise older man, and Macron, a 39-year-old, brilliant, highly educated, former minister of finances and economy, although never elected. Bayrou declared, “My priority will be to guarantee the moralization of French politics,” a promise which could not be more topical.
Macron’s style is very different from the other French politicians. He smiles a lot and is warm and friendly. The project he just laid out is not harsh and does not sound like a punishment. For a man as young as he is, what he proposes is surprisingly down to earth and realistic. His priority is to modernize the system, simplify the regulations, and decentralize the decision process. He introduces many innovating measures, which may go against the entrenched privileges of some French.
He is counting on the suppression of 120,000 posts of civil servants to reach his goal of a 60 billions economy. Nothing like the choc therapy proposed by Fillon to eliminate 500,000 posts.
As a good economist, he has two sound proposals: one is to lower corporate taxes from 33.3 percent to 25 percent to be in sync with the average European rates. Another proposal makes a great deal of sense: stop penalizing people for making investments. By lowering high taxes on their capital, the French may stop hiding their savings under their mattresses.
To tackle the endemic French unemployment, he intends to make sure that the allowances are linked to the efforts demonstrated by job seekers to find a job.
Macron unveiled his project to an audience of 400 journalists on March 2. The other candidates were very quick to pull his project to shreds. Vicious messages circulated in the social networks trying to demolish him, particularly for having worked for the Rothschild bank. No French president has ever been able to carry out even a small portion of Macron’s proposed reforms. The fight will be ruthless.
Fillon’s situation is becoming more unsustainable by the hour. An indictment is probable. A growing number of his team have jumped ship. He is determined not to quit the race. The name of Alain Juppe, who came second in the primary, is being mentioned as a substitute.
Only 50 more days until the first round of elections on April 23, and still no way out of the crisis — probably one of the worst France has ever lived through.
Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Nicole Prévost Logan.
About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.