The campaign for the election this spring has been buffeted by surprises: the eclipse of the pollsters’ favourites; suspicions of financial greed on the part of the one-time frontrunner; and a background campaign by Russia to ruin another’s chances.
On 23rd April and 7th May, 45 million voters will be invited to choose France’s president for the next five years. As the campaign entered its final weeks, only one thing seemed certain: that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right anti-immigration National Front, will qualify for the second and final round in May.
The identity of her likely opponent changed when François Fillon, the winner of conservative primaries in November and prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012, became embroiled in a scandal over substantial payments out of his parliamentary allowances to his British-born wife, Penelope, and two of their five children. Penelope - in rare statements to the media over the years - maintained that she kept a distance from her husband’s career, never hinting that she was in fact a salaried member of his staff.
The revelations in the satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné sent Fillon’s campaign reeling, with speculation that his Les Républicains party would replace him, possibly with Alain Juppé, another former prime minister and runner-up in the primaries.
The scandal was heightened by the righteous tone of the deeply Catholic Fillon’s own statements stressing his ‘values’ and the need for morality and probity in public life. At one point, he singled out Sarkozy, facing charges for alleged impropriety in financing his own failed 2012 presidential re-election campaign, as an example of the contrary.
Fillon, 62, told a press conference 12 days after the first reports that he had committed ‘a mistake’ by not being open about his wife’s role alongside him, but insisted that he remained a candidate and would fight to win. Nevertheless, speculation persisted that he might be forced to quit.
Until the scandal erupted, Fillon was the pollsters’ frontrunner to face Marine Le Pen in the second round - and the most likely to win. This scenario would have brought together two candidates who have argued for lifting Europe’s economic sanctions against Russia, imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The campaign turmoil served one man: Emmanuel Macron, a former banker who was economy minister from 2014 until last year under the incumbent socialist president, François Hollande. Macron, 39, has run a ‘social liberal’ campaign proposing measures to free up the French economy that many business actors consider long overdue.
Enter Izvestia. The Moscow daily led allegations on Russian websites that Macron, married to a woman 24 years his senior, had something to hide. The Paris rumour mill went into overdrive and it was Macron himself who revealed the essence of the rumours – that he was in a homosexual relationship with a prominent media boss – a scenario that Macron ridiculed.
The episode gave substance to fears expressed by French and German security services that Russia –after meddling in the U.S. presidential election – would disrupt votes in Europe. Macron has a less conciliatory view of ties with Russia than either Fillon or Le Pen. A poll just after Fillon’s press conference showed him dropping to a poor third place, with Macron surging ahead to the runoff against Le Pen, herself facing a call from the European Parliament to reimburse 300,000 euros for salaries paid to party workers disguised as parliamentary aides, a parallel scandal which seemed to do little harm to her image.
Meanwhile, the left, after five years of a lacklustre socialist presidency, appeared to be a total also-ran, with Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon and his hard-left opponent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, jostling for poor fourth and fifth places. All unless fresh shocks send this campaign into a new upheaval.