So far, so good. The main focus of attention is on François Fillon. The referee is looking at the staggering fighter, ready to send him to his corner. However he considers himself a real heavyweight and decides to fight on.

Fillon is alleged to have secured his wife Penelope generously paid, taxpayer funded ‘fake jobs’ as a parliamentary assistant for over 15 years and also to have secured similar jobs for his children. He is now being investigated by judges on a number of possible charges. He denies breaking any laws. Alain Juppé, who does have a criminal conviction for creating a fake job, has said he will not stand instead of Fillon. Fillon then made a speech in which he showed some contrition about ‘mistakes’ but would not concede he had actually done wrong. Les Républicains then held an emergency meeting the resulted in them continuing to support his candidature. However within 48 hours more news revealed that he had received an interest free, undeclared loan from a billionaire businessman, Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, in 2013. Judges are looking at whether he paid Penelope Fillon about €5000 monthly before tax between May 2012 and December 2013 in return for being recommended by Fillon for France’s highest honour, the grand croix de la Légion d’honneur, in 2010. It is alleged that this could be classified as influence peddling. Investigators were also said to be looking into a consultancy firm called 2F Conseil that Fillon set up in 2012 after he left office as PM, which has purportedly paid him hundreds of thousands of Euros. Things do not look good for him. No amount of sponge work by his seconds seems to be helping.

The main contenders

François Fillon

Fillon Clarke

François Fillon and his wife Penelope

However, let us take a look at the candidates as they stand at present, albeit Fillon should beware the ideas of March, the day (15 March) on which Julius Caesar was assassinated but also on which candidature should be confirmed. So, let us begin with Fillon. The 63 year old served as PM from 2007 to 2012 under Nicolas Sarkozy, but has a long record of serving as a minister: Higher Education and Research,1993-95; Information Technologies and Posts, 1995; Posts, Telecommunications and Space, 1995-97; Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity, 2002-04; National Education, Higher Education and Research: 2004-05; whilst PM he also held the office of Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development, Transport and Housing during 2012 until François Hollande was elected. His background is with a degree and advanced diploma in public law. He has had little professional life outside of politics. As PM Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s Minister of Labour in 2002, he carried out controversial reforms of the 35 hour working week law and of the retirement system. In 2004, as Minister of National Education he proposed the much debated Fillon law on education. In 2005 he was elected Senator for the Sarthe department; then his role as a political advisor in Sarkozy’s successful bid for the presidency led to his becoming PM. He is married to Welsh born Penelope, they have five children; their home is the 12th century Manoir de Beaucé in the Sarthe where he appears to live the life of a country gentleman. He is running on a platform described as conservative, entered the 2016 presidential primary and appeared to be likely to come third as late as a week before the first round on 20 November. He came first in the first round, defeating Alain Juppé in the primary runoff one week later. Then the judiciary began to look at him. Jabs at first but with blows hat are increasingly heavy are pummelling him into a corner. This now punch drunk fighter has little left to offer.

Emmanuel Macron

Emmanuel Macron

The favourite to win at the second round at present is Macron.  In French political terms, at age 39 he is considered young. He was raised in Picardy, studied philosophy and was briefly thought of as a ‘rising star’ in the civil service before moving on to Rothschild as an investment banker. He served under Hollande, at first as a senior adviser then as Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Data before resigning and launching his campaign. He defines himself as ‘of the left’, progressive on social issues, but economically liberal and pro-business and open to rightwing policy. His movement En Marche! draws large and a growing number of supporters to its rallies. Running as an independent centrist, he has promised new laws to clean up corruption and had a dig at Fillon when said he would “end nepotism and conflict of interests” by introducing a ban on MPs and senators employing family members or working as consultants while in office. There would also be more scrutiny of parliamentary expenses. He has complained that the regular mention of corruption in the presidential race is obscuring real debate. Marine Le Pen, considered his main rival, is facing an investigation over misuse of European parliament funds. That is a good jab in the very vulnerable underbelly of French politics.

His pro-EU platform offers a mix of traditionally rightwing pro-business measures including relaxing France’s strict labour laws, cutting certain taxes and measures to combat the country’s growing inequality in education and on housing estates. He has been critical of previous governments’ failure to deal with the ongoing inequality and discrimination on mixed, high-rise estates, the banlieue, saying it is not enough to simply launch renovation plans for buildings in those neighbourhoods, which does not resolve the problem of ghettos. He said he wanted social mobility and would give a €15,000 bonus over three years to companies who hired people from 200 designated poor neighbourhoods. He has also proposed a radical overhaul of the pensions system to balance out big differences between private and government employee pension schemes while keeping the retirement age at 62. He has also proposed shaking up running the unemployment benefit system and vowed to turn around the several decades long problem of mass unemployment. In a country that is often described as ‘unreformable’, he said he would not be hindered by fiddling about with small changes: he said “We are not looking to adapt or reform, but to transform…” and “We will have democratic legitimacy on the basis of a clear programme.” Fancy footwork, but can he punch?

Marine Le Pen

marinelepen

Macron’s main opponent was expected to get the largest vote in the first round; Le Pen was the first candidate to set out a long list of policy proposals, including cutting immigration, taxing imports and foreigners’ job contracts, furthermore taking France out of the Euro zone and holding a referendum on EU membership. Le Pen, 48, is a lawyer and president of the Front National (FN). She is the youngest daughter of former and long term FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and the aunt of her most recent rival, FN MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. She joined FN in 1986 and was elected as a regional councillor from 1998 to the present, has been a MEP since 2004 and was municipal councillor in Hénin-Beaumont from 2008-11. She stood for the leadership of the FN in 2011, defeating opponent Bruno Gollnisch and succeeding her father who had been president of the party for nearly 40 years. In 2012, she came third in the presidential election with almost 18% of the vote, behind Hollande and Sarkozy. Her bid for the presidency became entangled in controversy last month after members of her staff were accused by EU officials of being paid for nonexistent jobs at the European Parliament. Her chief of staff was formally charged as part of an investigation into the allegations and her bodyguard is also being investigated. Olaf, the European anti-fraud office, demanded she repay €340,000. She has refused, thud it is being deducted from her MEP’s salary. Three other FN members of the European parliament, including her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, have been ordered by the European court to repay in the region of €600,000 of allegedly misused money.

Le Pen senior has been told to repay €320,000 of salary and benefits, Bruno Gollnisch, the former academic convicted of Holocaust denial, €275,984 and MEP Mylène Troszczynski, €56,500. All three refute any transgression and have challenged repayment because they claim it would render them unable to carry out their MEP duties. The court rejected their appeal and ruled the recuperation of all money should proceed.

The European Parliament then stripped the National Front leader of immunity from prosecution over a separate case that will enable prosecutors to investigate her over tweets she sent in December 2015 that showed images of killings by ISIS militants. French law prohibits the distribution of violent images or incitement of terrorism. A prosecutor in Nanterre, in the west of Paris, made had made the request for lifting immunity. Under French law, the maximum penalty for distributing violent images is up to three years in prison and a fine of up to €75,000; however the case will not be heard until after 23 April.

Squaring up in the ring

In real terms, despite being constantly visible on the political stage, she has less actual experience than either Fillon or Macron, having neither been elected nor appointed to any national government post. Sputnik, the Russian news media best known for fake news, has accused Macron of a double life. They have attempted to capitalise on his 2007 marriage to Brigitte Trogneux, his 56 year old wife. Not only is she 17 years older than him, but she was his French teacher at the private upper school he went to in Amiens. She also ran the theatre club where he was a promising actor. She was married with three children, divorced to join Macron in Paris once he was 18 and now even has grandchildren. Sputnik likes to make two-plus-two add up to three so that they can discuss the missing element. In this case they chose the fact that he has friends and support in the LGBT community, moreover a close friend is gay. Therefore, their logic is that he is covertly gay. He has casually brushed it off and has had the backup of his wife who has given the allegation short shrift. He comes out Mr Clean again – as if being gay matters anyway. So, all of the attempted punches below the belt were failing and losing opponents points.

Early in March Macron moved ahead of Le Pen for the first time according to some polls, 26% to 25% for the first round and 65% to 35% in the second. So, it is now gloves off and the fancy footwork begins.

Hitting below the belt

However, just when it looked like a contrite Fillon was recovering a bit of credibility the Twitter account of Les Républicains published a caricature of Macron depicting him as a hook-nosed banker wearing a top hat, cutting a cigar with a red sickle, the symbol of Communism. The cartoon of Macron, who is not Jewish but who formerly worked for Rothschild, was compared to 1930s anti-Semitic propaganda and caused public indignation. A few hours later, they replaced it with a photograph and deleted the original tweet. Fillon has undertaken to discipline the party workers who published a caricature of an opponent because it could be compared to Nazi propaganda.

Then when it looked like he had had his ration of sleaze, he faced renewed scrutiny when a newspaper reported a mystery benefactor had paid for his luxury bespoke suits. The paper’s claim was that since 2012 he had received clothes worth almost €48,500 from a Parisian tailor favoured by the rich and famous. It was reported that the suits in question each cost roughly €6,500. The claim was that €35,500 had been paid in cash, however two further suits ordered in early February were paid for with a cheque signed by a ‘generous friend’ who wished to remain anonymous.

So, Fillon’s credibility was sinking lower, deflecting attention from Le Pen’s own woes particularly but also making the thus far clean Macron look all the more credible. All of that before the fancy footwork of the mid-March final declaration of candidacy and real, hardcore campaigning steps up. It looks like Fillon’s seconds should have thrown in the towel, but they are still trying to use the sponge to keep him going. Le Pen has been keeping her head down, Macron staying upright and now gloves may be off for some bare knuckle fighting. But just before the end of the round came new revelations. On 14 March Fillon was formally placed under investigation over the suspicions that he was behind his wife be paid for the job she did not actually carry out and also payments to his two children whilst he was a senator about which he claims were paid as lawyers for particular tasks although neither was a qualified lawyer at that time. Explaining his decision to uphold his candidacy, he said he was assuming justice would be fair whilst describing the investigation as ‘political assassination’.

Although Le Pen is keeping her head down, she is not out of the controversy zone. Media have reported that she is now suspected by of undervaluing her share of two properties jointly owned with her father by the tax authorities. One of them is the family home west of Paris. As usual, she has denied the allegations and will contest the case. However, her party is being called into disrepute. FN has suspended a party official for Holocaust denial after he suggested there was no mass killing in Nazi concentration camps. Benoît Loeuillet, head of the Nice branch of FN, was secretly filmed making comments for a documentary programme that is forthcoming in which he was heard saying “I don’t think there were that many deaths … during the Shoah.” The party said he had been summoned to a disciplinary hearing that would decide if he would be expelled from FN. Just a year ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen was found guilty of denying crimes against humanity by saying the gas chambers used to kill Jews in the Holocaust were only a ‘detail’ of history. He was fined €30,000 in Paris for comments he restated on a television programme in April 2015 in which he told the interviewer he had no regrets over calling the gas chambers a mere detail of history and stood by that view, saying “because it’s the truth”. He already had two civil court convictions the same comments about gas chambers first stated in 1987, then repeated in Germany in 1999 when he told a German far right meeting that Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers are “what one calls a detail”, for which he was convicted by a Munich court, and then in the European Parliament in 2009.

A stunning blow

Then came 15 March when it became clear that what FN had hope would be a morale booster in the Netherlands did not come to fruition when anti-immigrant the candidate for PM, Geert Wilders, who had promised to ‘de-Islamise’ their country, and his PVV were  on course for a poorer than anticipated performance. Of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament PVV was only able to win 20. Turnout was 81%, an exit poll said, the highest for three decades. The left wing environmentalist GroenLinks party made large gains, although the PVDA, the outgoing coalition partner, suffered a large number of losses. However, sitting PM, Mark Rutte and VVD, kept the challenge by the far right at bay in an election widely seen as an indicator of populist sentiment in Europe. FN claims for a call for change of the kind they are demanding was not for the first time proven wrong. For them it is a low but legitimate punch that has at least temporarily stolen their breath.

As this round comes up to the bell

In the scramble for dirt on candidates Macron was jabbed at by media associating his name with an investigation that has been opened into possible favouritism over a 2016 event in Las Vegas, the Consumer Electronics Show,  at which he was the main speaker whilst Economy Minister. An aide has said the story is “not about Macron” and Michel Sapin, the current Economy Minister, said he was exempt of any suspicion: “This is a dysfunction of Business France … This does not concern Emmanuel Macron, his staff or the ministry”. Business France is suspected of favouritism by giving the contract to the group Havas without tendering it. I another development, the French anti-corruption association Anticor asked the country’s transparency watchdog to examine Macron’s declaration of assets when he became economy minister in 2014, saying it appeared to “lack coherence”. Macron stated his declaration of assets was accurate and that it had already been checked. Again, they were attempted low blows that appear not to have made real contact.

So now it is the second half of March, seconds are out, the ringside judges will note punches fair and foul to see who they favour in this fight. In what was a three cornered contest, one contender is badly damaged already, of the two main contenders one is bruised and the other has so far dodged all blows that counted. The fight is beginning in earnest.

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