French legal probe ratchets up pressure on Fillon election bid
A French prosecutors’ decision to launch a full judicial inquiry into claims that presidential candidate Francois Fillon paid his family for fake jobs leaves him facing a fraught two months before elections, media commentators said Saturday.
Rightwing standardbearer Fillon, who was previously leading the race, will be investigated over allegations of embezzlement for putting his wife Penelope on the public payroll, prosecutors said Friday.
With the first round of the presidential vote less than two months away, on April 23, the 62-year-old former prime minister faces a “perilous period, both legally and politically”, the left-wing Liberation daily said in an editorial.
The Paris daily Le Parisien said the decision unleashed a “surge in the pressure” on Fillon.
At the International Farm Fair — a must for presidential candidates’ calendars that opened Saturday in Paris — farmers and artisans voiced their dismay over the scandal dubbed “Penelopegate”.
“If they wanted to disgust us, the French, they’ve outdone themselves,” said Marianne Roussille, 57, who intended to vote for Fillon before the scandal broke last month.
At a stand showcasing cheeses from Normandy, another vendor said he too was no longer prepared to vote for Fillon, who had campaigned as a “clean” candidate. “All our politicians are hooligans, mafiosi,” the 45-year-old said, giving his name only as Ghislain.
– Problems for Le Pen –
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen has been bolstered by the scandal, overtaking Fillon in the opinion polls over the past month.
But Le Pen is facing her own expenses scandal, and on Saturday news broke that a close confidant had been charged in a separate matter with making an illegal loan to her party.
And her personal assistant was charged Wednesday over allegations she was unlawfully paid from funds that Le Pen receives from the European Parliament, where she has a seat.
The latest surveys before the prosecutors’ decision on Fillon showed he had regained ground and was neck-and-neck with 39-year-old centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in second place.
Fillon denies wrongdoing but has said he would drop out of the race if he is charged, although he later appeared to backtrack and said he would put his fate in the hands of voters.
The devout Catholic won the conservative nomination by campaigning as a “clean” candidate unsullied by the scandals of his rivals.
But since January he has been fighting claims by Le Canard Enchaine newspaper that he used allowances to pay his British-born wife Penelope at least 680,000 euros ($720,000) over some 15 years as a parliamentary aide.
Although French lawmakers are allowed to employ family members, it is unclear what work Penelope actually did.
Lawyers for the couple said they were confident the investigators would find them “innocent, at last”.
– From outsider to frontrunner –
The Canard Enchaine has also alleged Fillon’s wife was also paid tens of thousands of euros by a literary review, the Revue des Deux Mondes, owned by her husband’s billionaire friend, Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere.
Magistrates will investigate whether this amounted to misappropriation of corporate assets.
The paper also reported that two of Fillon’s children were paid as parliamentary advisors for brief periods.
The Fillons have argued that Penelope was legitimately employed and the couple’s lawyers say they have provided proof of the work she did.
Macron, a former economy minister, has surged from outsider to a frontrunner but faces constant criticism from rivals that his policy platform is too vague.
While Le Pen is forecast to win the most votes in the first round, polls currently show she would be beaten by either Fillon or Macron in the decisive runoff on May 7.
Le Pen on Friday refused to attend questioning by anti-corruption investigators, saying she would speak to them only after the election.
Then on Saturday news broke of criminal charges for Le Pen confidant Frederic Chatillon, who heads a company called Riwal that did communications work for party candidates.
Prosecutors allege that Chatillon used Riwal to make a loan to FN satellite group Jeanne, which would be illegal because companies are forbidden from contributing to political parties in France.
The presidential race remains highly uncertain with the unstable international picture — from Donald Trump and Brexit to the surge of rightwing nationalism in countries such as the Netherlands — being mirrored by an anti-establishment mood in France.