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.