Francois Fillon Turns the Tables in the French Presidential Election

With only seven weeks to go before the first round of the French presidential elections, no one is talking policy.  Everyone is talking “Fillon” instead.  And all the conversations and predictions are about whether this candidate should stay or go.  Three days ago, 100 political chiefs deserted him.

Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe just says No to Plan B.
Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe just says No to Plan B.

Yesterday, the Plan B candidate, Alain Juppe, officially proclaimed he would not run.  So today, Francois Fillon is back – and it looks like he’s going to stay.  His strategy is just to keep standing and let the others come and go as they please.  That seems to be working for him.  Is it working for France?  Only time and votes will tell.

Fillon hosted a rally on March 4th in Paris to insist publicly that he is still the Presidential hopeful.  The Fillon team said there were 200,000 people in attendance.  Now, that’s the French version of fake news since Trocadero, where the rally was held, can only hold 45,000 people, according to the French police. Polls show that more than 70% of French voters want Fillon to withdraw his candidacy.  They want him to resign; name a replacement and ride off into the sunset of a possible indictment that is facing him.  But, just like the Elton John song, he’s still standing.  Here’s how all this unprecedented mess started.

Penelope and Francois Fillon very much in the public eye.
Penelope and Francois Fillon very much in the public eye.

Back in November, 2016, Francois Fillon won the first-ever Republican party primary with a healthy score of 44%.Things were looking good for him and the party in general. Since this was the first time for a primary, no one thought about what happens if the candidate gets into a legal scandal before the election.  As it stands, the only exit for acandidate would be a resignation letter.  However, Mr. Fillon is adamant that he is in for the long-haul.  The scandal  he is now in is being called “PenelopeGate.”  He is supposedly about to be charged with creating fictitious employment for his wife Penelope (to the tune of almost a million euros, pretty much the same amount in dollars).  The suspicious employment he gave to two of his children while they were law students is also on the judge’s table.

So, for the French right party, the Republican Party, Francois Fillon is a candidate who might (or might not) be indicted on March 15th when he is summoned to court.  The far-right populist candidate, Marine Le Pen, has also been summoned for financial dealings concerning two members of her staff but she has “solved” her problem by saying she simply won’t go.  On the left side of the government, Francois Hollande, the current president, bowed out of the Socialist primary.  He chose not to run for the “good of the party” since all polls were saying he was sure to lose.  The Socialists had their scandal just before the last election in 2012 but theirs was a sexual one.  Dominque Strauss-Kahn, the left front-runner for president, was accused of raping a hotel maid in New York back in May 2011. He subsequently spent a night in Rikers prison and settled the civil case out of court for an undisclosed amount. The accompanying disgrace ended his chances of running for president and that’s when Francois Hollande came into the picture.  He was Plan B for the Socialists in 2012.

Mr. Fillon is now being compared to Trump..
Mr. Fillon is now being compared to Trump..

 

The French media like to compare their presidential candidates to Trump.  Up to now, they were consistently doing this only for Marine Le Pen.  She is France’s Populist candidate on the far-right. She is consistently anti-immigration; anti-European and anti-Muslim. However, this week, the media has started to compare Francois Fillon to Donald Trump since he attacked the judicial system which he feels is attacking him (something equivalent to Trump’s tweet about the “so-called judges” who stopped his Executive travel ban order).  Mr. Fillon also staged his public “feel-good” rally in Trump fashion and urged his supporters to “resist,” to “fight this strange combat” along with him.

 

Francois Fillon's latest Motto.
Francois Fillon’s latest Motto.

After Fillon’s anti-justice system declaration, his spokesperson resigned; his campaign manager bailed and many elected officials said that Fillon had “crossed the line.”  They all point to the fact that Fillon initially said he would pull out of the presidential race if there were to be a formal investigation.  There is a formal investigation and Fillon is still running.  France is on political hold.  The only thing is sure at this point is that Fillon is the candidate for the conservation Republican party.  He has managed to “divide and conquer” his party — just by running in place.

PenelopeGate – A New Feminine Twist on French Political Scandal

There’s another political scandal blazing in France and this time it doesn’t involve the President taking a ride on a Vespa and paying a nocturnal visit to his girlfriend. It still concerns a woman though, but a woman who has done, and openly admits to doing, nothing. No problem in that, in and of itself, except that she was allegedly paid 831,400 Euros (about $894,000) for that “nothing.” Now that’s a problem.

Francois Fillon, the Presidential candidate for the French Republican party, and the frontrunner, is suddenly

Penelope Fillon out and about in Paris.
Penelope Fillon out and about in Paris.

embroiled in a situation that is wreaking havoc on his party and the whole country.  Mr. Fillon is accused of falsely employing his wife, Penelope Fillon, as a Parliamentary assistant over several years and paying her an enormous sum of money – from public funds.  There is nothing illegal about employing family members in the French political system (nepotism is welcome here).  What the voters are upset about is that it seems there is no proof that she actually worked in the Parliament.  There is no trace of a badge, no pay slips, no one remembers seeing her working in the wings of the Parliament building.  Adding to this is the alleged salary of 84,000 Euros (about $90,000) that Mr. Fillon paid to two of his adult children for their legal advice.  Again, hiring family members as lawyers is not illegal, however, his children were not yet qualified lawyers when they were paid.  They were still students.

Before the investigative French newspaper “Canard Enchainé” broke the story, Francois Fillon was the morally irreproachable man of the hour.  He won the Republican primary by a landslide.  He had been the Prime Minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy and was the perfect candidate from the right to replace the Socialist President, Francois Hollande.

Fillon family at their French chateau.
Fillon family at their French chateau.

His solid, Catholic family was picture-perfect – married for 37 years to the same woman, Penelope, who is of Welsh origin.  They are both in their early 60’s and have five children.  They live in an honest-to-goodness chateau in the Sarthes region of France.  In the rare television or newspaper interviews that Penelope has given, she has always talked about how she was just an ordinary housewife bringing up her children and letting Francois handle the political stuff.  In October 2016, she was quoted as saying, “Up until now, I have never been involved in the political life of my husband.”  Unfortunately, she is very involved now, and may be the reason that her husband’s political life might soon be over.

So, what’s happening now in French political circles?  Well, it’s one ill-timed, right-sided mess.  The first round of the presidential election is April 23rd.  Mr. Fillon and his family are being questioned this week.  They could be exonerated of all suspicion or the affair could continue to criminal court, and if that happens, Mr. Fillon could not run for President.  This is not the first time a politician is accused of mis-use of public funds – far from it.

Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, is one happy camper.
Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, is one happy camper.

The problem is the timing.  If Mr. Fillon were President, the government would have to wait until his term was over to take him to Court to settle this accusation.  However, he is only a candidate.  But, he is the only candidate that many French people think could have easily won the Presidential race…that is, until the doors of “PenelopeGate” opened.

Recent polls say that 6 out of 10 voters want Francois Fillon to resign as presidential candidate. Alain Juppe, the mayor of Bordeaux who lost to Mr. Fillon in the primary, has already stated he refuses to be the “Plan B.” The party would have to come up with someone else – but they are running out of time. Meanwhile, this instability definitely helps the other runners.  The ones who are currently left standing are Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-EU, Trump-loving representative of the National Front party; Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister under President Hollande, who is running as an independent; the Socialist rebel and ex-minister of Education, Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the perpetual candidate from the hard-left.

Mr. Fillon's campaign tract calling PenelopeGate a witch hunt.
Mr. Fillon’s campaign tract calling PenelopeGate a witch hunt.

Francois Fillon is on the road campaigning this weekend; claiming this whole deal is a witch hunt, a set-up by his political enemies.  He is asking his supporters to just look at his program but, when they do that, they see he wants to cut 500,000 civil service jobs, which does not look good next to the allegations of paying his wife close to a million euros for allegedly not working at all.

It seems that, at this point, it doesn’t even matter whether or not Fillon mis-used public funds – the damage is already done.  The entire Republican party is in disarray and the Presidential election is around the corner.  How they will get out of this sticky situation is anyone’s guess.  Maybe there’s another woman hanging around on the left who can generate another political scandal.  That seems to be business-as-usual in French (and other) political circles.

Surprising French FaceOff as Presidential Primaries Begin

All I can say is that political polling seems to be really off its rocker in both the USA and France. No one saw Trump coming; most of the polls wrote him off early, but then Voila! – he’s here. A similar thing just happened with Francois Fillon

One Happy French Camper - Francois Fillon.
One Happy French Camper – Francois Fillon.

in the first round of the presidential primaries of the “Republicans,” the center right party of the French government. On November 20th, an unexpectedly high turnout of voters, (4 million Frenchmen and women), surprised all the pundits by putting Francois Fillon at the head of the race and ending Nicolas Sarkozy’s political career.
All the predictions were for Alain Juppe, the mayor of Bordeaux, to come in first; Sarkozy second and Fillon third – but a long way behind Sarkozy. However, the results were 44.1% – Fillon; 28.6% – Juppe and 20.6% – Sarkozy. Since the Cartesian French keep their elections simple, that means Sarkozy is out, and on November 27th, there will be a face-off between Fillon and Juppe. The victor of the run-off, by a simple majority, will be the candidate for the right-wing Republicans. That winner, Fillon or Juppe, will be in the global spotlight until the elections on May 7th 2017 since so many people are looking to see if he will be able to defeat Marine LePen, the far-right, Front National candidate who is hoping to ride the Brexit/Trump wave.
You can read up on these candidates in other political blogs, in this article, I wanted to talk about how this first French Republican presidential primary was conducted. It’s so different from what happens in the USA that it’s worth a closer look. Any registered voter could participate in the primary as long as they signed a “Republican” charter and paid two euros (about $2.12). Here’s what the charter stated, “Je partage les valeurs républicaines de la droite et du centre et je m’engage pour l’alternance afin de réussir le redressement de la France”.

French voters (including Alain Juppe) waiting in line to sign the Charter.
French voters (including Alain Juppe) waiting in line to sign the Charter.

In English, it translates to something like this, “I share the Republican values of the Right and the Center and I am committed to the change of power so that the recovery of France will succeed.” That sounds a bit flowery and, when you analyze it, it’s a pretty general statement, not really requiring a great deal of thought on the voter’s part. Kind of like a “goes without saying” situation. And, after signing the charter, you had to pay.

I, for one, was taken aback by the fact that the French voters had to go to the polls with a two-Euro coin in their collective pocket. (The pre-voting publicity was very clear about not making change nor allowing for electronic payments.) However, after reading about the reasoning behind the contribution, it started to make sense. The primary costs between 6 – 9 million Euros to run. The rules say if the voter contribution

The price to pay for voting in the French primary.
The price to pay for voting in the French primary.

is not enough to pay for those costs, the Republican party will make up the difference. If there is more than enough, the extra amount will go to the winner of the primary to be used in his campaign. Since there were four million voters who contributed two euros each, the costs were largely covered by the eight million that was collected and the lucky winner of the November 27th run-off will get the overflow.  Surprisingly, none of my French friends protested paying to vote in the primary. I can’t even imagine that system being allowed in the US – not even for a second.

So, what happens on the left once the center-right candidate has been chosen? Well, between December 1st and 15th, the Socialist candidates who plan to run for president must make an official announcement.  It’s still not certain if Francois Hollande, the incumbent, will run, since his popularity rating is at an historic all-time low of 4%. The Socialist primary is on January 22nd and the first round of presidential elections on April 23rd. If no candidate has the majority of votes in April, the second and final round between the top two will be held on May 7th 2017. And that’s it, the new French presidential primaries and elections take place within a span of seven months! For once, the French touch is an efficient one. Let’s see if the polls can get this one right. We’ll have to wait and see.

The Americanization of French Presidential Campaigns

Oh no, it’s happening in Paris too.  Just when the US presidential campaign is almost over and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief; the French contest is starting and local TV is trying a new thing – producing political “shows a l’américaine”.  I saw one last week and couldn’t believe my eyes or ears.  It was a horrible harbinger, an omen of how bad the French presidential campaign just might become.

The name of the show is “Une Ambition Intime,” which translates to “A Private Ambition.”

This photo certainly sets the tone of the program.
This photo certainly sets the tone of the program.

The presenter is a beautiful, sexy lady named Karine Le Marchand, who usually hosts a popular reality show where she helps French farmers find love in the comfort of their own home.  (It’s called “L’Amour Est dans Le Pré” or “Love is in the Field”.)  She oversees the matchmaking of the contestants and interviews them in their country surroundings.  It’s a stretch to go from hosting a heartfelt, love-farm program to interviewing political candidates.  However, Karine does it while sitting on a couch and drinking wine.  She even makes the politicians cry and give up family secrets.  So, in the end, it’s not such a stretch.  And, in the end, it made me cry too – but for different reasons.

Karine Le Marchand is the producer of this show. Television rumor has it that she threatened to quit if the M6 channel, which broadcasts the program, didn’t give her the chance to host something else besides the Farmer takes a Wife.  The first airing of “Une Ambition Intime” received some bad reviews but the head of M6, Nicolas de Tavernost, defended Karine’s show saying that people would be surprised at the number of politicians who want a place on Madame Le Marchand’s sofa (that’s right; that’s what he said).  He added that he was proud of her.  Critics claimed that Karine doesn’t know anything about politics.  However, knowledge of French politics is irrelevant since, in “A Private Ambition,” Karine exposes the human side of the presidential candidates or, rather, lets them expose themselves.  A lot.

Karine asking Nicolas Sarkozy about his feminine track record.
Karine asking Nicolas Sarkozy about his feminine track record.

The objective of the program is to unveil another facet of the presidential candidate – one the audience would not see on a typical political program.  There is absolutely no discussion of current issues, social problems, the deficit, security or jobs.  Karine Le Marchand doesn’t grill the candidate as to what the basis of their political platform is and how he or she would accomplish their goals.  Instead, with sappy pop music in the background, (appropriately chosen by her 13-year-old daughter), Karine coyly asked the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, if she should call him “Nicolas” or “Mr. President”.

She cuddled up on the couch; poured him a glass of red wine and asked him about the ladies in his life.  He told her he had an “enormous track record” with women and she then asked if that was the only “enormous” thing he had.  She followed that with a pathetically fake giggle.

It got worse.  There were three more candidates to go.  The emotional highlight of Arnaud Montebourg’s interview was when he got all teary-eyed thinking of his premature baby.    The next candidate, Bruno Lemaire, shed tears when he talked about his wife (she’s fine, by the way).  Then Karine Le Marchand had a conversation in the garden this time (no couch) with Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate.  With Marine, she evoked favorite recipes and flowers and commiserated about how both Karine and Marine are single moms.  She offered wine again (white wine, this time) and they toasted to life.

Jugging down the wine in an attempt to get "cozy".
Jugging down the wine in an attempt to get “cozy”.

Madame Le Pen went on to talk about her difficult, if not impossible, relationship with her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who used to be the head of the National Front party.  She threw him out of the party a few months ago and they haven’t spoken since.  Marine said that was an extremely painful thing to do – second only to childbirth.  Wow.

That politicians have turned into entertainers in the United States is not a new phenomenon.  But this is new is for France and, personally speaking, I hope it stops right here.  However, “A Private Ambition” attracted 3.1 million viewers; that’s 14% of the Sunday evening market so it looks like it will probably continue.  The French are voluntarily lowering their standards of political campaigning and the candidates are letting them do it.  Why, oh why, did these potential presidents agree to do such a program?  They could have all nipped this trend in the bud by just saying no.

Let’s hope that one day we will all pick our presidents in the same way we choose a doctor.  For example, if you were going to have a knee operation, would you care about your surgeon’s romantic liaisons?  About his or her favorite recipes, gardening talents, musical preferences?

Let's talk about skills, not stories, please.
Let’s talk about skills, not stories, please.

No, there’s no time for silly small talk and, truthfully, you would just want a skilled professional with experience.  You would probably check out his team; the reputation of the clinic; his or her surgical success rate.  Let’s face it, we’re all human and we all have stories.  But, when it comes to deciding who will govern a country, there are some stories we just don’t need to hear.

The Dark Side of French Humor

Having been married to a Frenchman for sixteen years, I know a lack of a sense of humor when I see it.  His jokes weren’t funny to me; my jokes weren’t funny to him.  We eventually divorced due to this total humorless vacuum (and maybe for a couple of other reasons I don’t want to talk about here).  My point is that not being able to laugh together can definitely kill a relationship.  I just saw it happen on television this week when a French comedian-weather girl verbally killed her budding professional relationship with Jonah Hill, the American actor, comedian, screenwriter and producer.

Jonah was in Paris promoting the film, War Dogs, which was released in France this week.  He and fellow co-star Miles Teller were guests on “Le Petit Journal,” a French news and entertainment program.

Jonah Hill, in Paris on a promotional tour of War Dogs.
Jonah Hill, in Paris on a promotional tour of War Dogs.

Their interviewer, Ornella Fleury, was a pretty, young weather-girl who thought that ridicule and humor were synonymous.  She kicked off the live conversation with Jonah Hill with a daring proclamation of how she first fell under his charms.  These were her exact words: “It was when I saw you get sodomized by a 3-meter tall demon in This Is The End,” she said, “that I told myself, now THAT’S the man of my dreams.”

Now, please tell me, firstly, how does this statement makes any sexual sense and, secondly, how in the world did she expect Jonah Hill to react?  Well, he gave her the “right back at you lady” treatment with the following quote, said via his translator, “I heard you get sodomized quite often.”  That wasn’t enough to stop Mademoiselle Fleury as she pummeled through a very awkward live-TV moment with an even more awkward sexual fantasy of hers.  Here it is in all its glory.  “We would meet up in a hotel room at night. We would chat, you’d make me laugh… and then, all of a sudden, you’d bring your friends Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. And then you would leave.”

Jonah Hill was, as he should be, offended.  He said something about coming to France to promote a movie, not to be publicly ridiculed by a “local weather girl” and he left – the TV set and the country.  He subsequently canceled all his further appearances in France. The

Ornella Fleury, the weather girl and would-be comic.
Ornella Fleury, the weather girl and would-be comic.

weather-girl apologized to Jonah in front of the camera the next day, spurting out some lame excuse about how she mistakenly thought that she and Jonah were “friends” due to the fact that she has seen him in films for the last ten years.  So she was just messing around with him (well, her statements were certainly “messy”).  Jonah Hill has not responded and probably never will.  Her actions certainly don’t merit any sort of response on his part.  One more relationship has gone south due to a mismatch of senses of humor.

This incident got me thinking about the kind of “humor” the French feel comfortable with.  They don’t go in for self-ridicule; they need a target to mock.  Anglo-Saxon humor is often self-deprecating whereas the French think wit is funny.  That wit could be hostile, sarcastic, aggressive – and, in this particular case, just plain rude.  The French have an intellectual approach to humor, which is why they love Woody Allen.  And, the fact that they like to see people ridiculed is why they absolutely adore Jerry Lewis.  Most authentic French jokes get lost in translation and that’s probably a good thing.  American jokes get lost too.  For example, I just saw Jimmy Fallon tussle Donald Trump’s hair on live television and the audience thought that was hilarious.  Now if this weather girl dared to touch a French Presidential candidate’s hair on live TV, it would be seen as disrespectful, rude and uncalled for – anything but funny.

When you think about French comedy on a global scale, there aren’t very many names of French comics that come to mind.

Marcel Marceau, a truly funny Frenchman - the King of Mime.
Marcel Marceau, a truly funny Frenchman – the King of Mime.

To understand its wit and irony, you would need to be extremely fluent in the language.  French “comedy” works on a national level.  In fact, the only well-known Frenchman who could make people laugh in both the USA and France was Marcel Marceau.  Ah, but he was a mime. Maybe that young weather-girl should look him up.  She might learn something.  Something that was truly funny.

Moo’s, Boo’s and Whistles in Paris – France’s Cash Cow Industry Speaks Out

     Even though the French equivalent of the Oscars, called the “Césars” and the Oscars themselves were happening this weekend, the real star of the show in Paris was not Leonardo di Caprio in LA or Michael Douglas in Paris.

Meet Cerise - Best Head Shot Ever for a Farm Fair Mascot
Meet Cerise – Best Head Shot Ever for a Farm Fair Mascot

The real star was “Cerise”, otherwise known as Cherry, the Bazadais cow from southwestern France who was the official mascot for this year’s International Agricultural Fair, a prestigious Parisian annual event which attracts about 700,000 people and a whole lot of animals.

Cerise must have been a bit surprised at the reception she received on the pre-opening hours of the Farm Fair – at 6:45 on that Saturday morning. She was expecting to have a one-on-one, face-to-face encounter with Francois Hollande, the president of France. The President made it to the Fair, but could not get anywhere near her. Cerise heard the boos and whistles and the insults that invaded the Expo Hall that morning. She knew that was not a good sign. Cerise also heard the destruction of stands that had just been assembled the day before. She looked for her owner, Bernard, to explain the chaos to her but she was left alone in a corner for a long, long time. (She later saw Bernard on the evening news. He was an integral part of that chaos. He could have let her in on it before he took off like that.)

The Salon mascot looked up at the television monitors and witnessed the pandemonium. She felt bad for the President. She was looking forward to meeting him. That’s pretty much why she accepted this role as mascot – for the prestige of getting a nod, a compliment and maybe even a pat on the behind from the Head of State. But Cerise knew from the conversations she overheard back home that these were very difficult times for her family of farmers. She knew they were justified in giving the President and the Agricultural Minister such a hard time. But, Cerise still wanted to see the President in person. Since she couldn’t, she listened to his speech instead.

No one could get near the French President at the Farm Fair.
No one could get near the French President at the Farm Fair.

Mr. Hollande said that he heard the cries of distress from the farmers and that he would do something about it. He blamed the overproduction of wheat and the Russian embargo. He would change the laws to make it better. “The whole country of France suffers when agriculture suffers”, he said. Cerise agreed with that comment. Her milk was worth less and less every day. But it was really good quality stuff. How could France continue to make the best cheese in the world if it did not also produce the best milk? Something had to change.

Cerise saw more police in one hour at the Agricultural Salon than she had seen in her entire lifetime. They were blocking the way of the President and steering him in a direction far from her. She saw on the TV that he was actually petting a different cow on the other end of the fair. She was beginning to regret ever having entered this mascot beauty contest. What was the point of winning first prize if she didn’t even get to say hi to the First Guy of France?

The beautiful, pregnant Ayem Nour speaking for all the cows of France.
The beautiful, pregnant Ayem Nour speaking for all the cows of France.

Then she saw a TV presenter who wanted to send a message to the President.  The lady’s name was Ayem Nour and she was very much pregnant. Her message to Francois Hollande went like this – “In the name of all the cows in France, please know that we are very happy to see you. Love you President.” Cerise agreed. But she still hoped the President would come back to see her for that “tête-à-tête”. After all, she was the Star of the Show.