French presidential race finds two leading candidates enmeshed in corruption

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In France, if you have a political secret to reveal or scandal to relate, the place to dish the dirt is the 102-year-old, eight-page, weekly satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné.

Sources for the paper's investigative reports include whistleblowers, revenge-seekers, opposition researchers from political parties, and journalists from other newspapers, concerned about protecting themselves from retribution for publishing destructive material.

Each Wednesday the Canard is required reading in the public affairs milieu. Since January the current French presidential campaign has been dominated by its revelations of corruption surrounding François Fillon, the high-profile candidate of the right-wing Republican party.

In November 2016 Fillon was a surprise winner of the Republican party primary defeating the favourite, Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux. With Fillon's party nomination safely stowed away, along with over 10 million euros to wage his campaign, the Canard was ready to attack.

In a first report, followed each week by others that have dominated news coverage of the Fillon campaign, the Canard revealed that throughout his career in municipal, regional and national politics, Fillon had his wife, Penelope, on the payroll -- though the Welsh-born U.K. national was on record as having "never" devoted time to her husband's career. 

The estimated cost of this non-employment to the French Treasury over the years was 930,000 euros.

His two children also had paying jobs, totalling 84,000 euros, at different times.

As part of his nomination campaign, Fillon had pledged to uphold the honour and dignity of public life. In a thinly veiled reference to judicial proceedings underway against a primary rival, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon asked if anyone could imagine Charles de Gaulle facing criminal charges.

Fillon is now scheduled for judicial hearings March 15.

The embezzlement scandal (alternatively labelled a misappropriation of public funds) led to speculation that Fillon would resign as candidate.

The one-time prime minister has steadfastly refused to do so, and because he controls the party campaign funds, the Republican party executive committee has been unable or unwilling to make him step down.

Fillon did lose his campaign manager, the support of over 300 elected Republican officials, and the backing of UDI -- L'Union des démocrates et indépendants -- a small independent right party.

For years French politics has drawn its battle lines between left and right forces. Indeed, the political usage of left and right worldwide derives from the arc of seats facing the Speakers Podium of the French National Assembly with the Socialists to the left, as seen from the podium, and Republicans to the right.

In 2016 with first Juppé, then Fillon, leading the polls as replacements for the outgoing Socialist President François Hollande, it appeared the usual dynamic of right replacing left in French politics was at work.

With Fillon wounded and falling in public esteem, surprisingly, a centrist candidate, campaigning as being neither left nor right, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, has emerged as the front-runner.

Macron was an investment banker recruited by François Hollande to be his economic adviser and then named to his cabinet. Unhappy -- Hollande was insufficiently "liberal" -- Macron resigned, and announced the creation of En Marche (or EM, his initials), a movement for change rather than a party.

Macron is soliciting candidates via the Internet to run under the EM banner in the June parliamentary elections. Part of his appeal is his willingness to throw out entrenched political office holders.

After five years of Socialist government, the assessment of left philosopher Alain Badiou rings true for many, supporters included: once in power, the Socialist party exists to explain why it can't do the things it promised to do when in opposition. 

Its indifferent record and its failure to attack unemployment contributed to a simmering Socialist party internal revolt. Les Frondeurs (rebels) a group based in the National Assembly, created Vive la Gauche, a collective. One of its members, ex-minister Benoît Hamon, won the Socialist primary, defeating the former prime minister Manuel Valls.

Hamon was able to arrange support for his candidacy from the French Greens, who have withdrawn in his favour, but the strong left candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon bleeds support from the Socialists. Mélenchon represents the dissident wing of the left, and he has used the poor historical record of the Socialists in power to build his campaign strength.   

French presidential elections take place in two stages. In the first vote scheduled for April 23, over 10 candidates will be on the ballot. In the run-off election two weeks later, the top two vote-getters face each other.

The weakness of Fillon suggests he will place third in the first round of balloting, leaving Macron to face Marine Le Pen, the extreme right-wing, anti-immigration, anti-EU candidate.

Some worry that Fillon will eclipse Macron, giving Le Pen a shot at winning the presidency on the second round, because so many people would refuse to vote for an embezzler.

However Le Pen herself is facing a judicial enquiry in France and is in trouble in Brussels for illegally using funds provided her as a member of the EU parliament to fund her National Front party activities in France.

Meanwhile, this week it was revealed that Fillon had received nearly 50,000 euros in custom-tailored suits paid for by an anonymous benefactor.

France awaits the results of judicial enquiries launched against the Republican candidate and the Front National candidate, not just the first round of voting for a new president.

Duncan Cameron is former president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Prachatai/flickr

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