Text by Tracy MCNICOLL
Embattled French conservative François Fillon was reminded on Friday that his wife’s alleged “fake job” isn’t the only controversial aspect of his troubled presidential bid.
At Fillon’s campaign headquarters, a glassy white and green complex pasted with “For Rent” signs on the southern edge of Paris, the candidate’s press conference on foreign policy and defence was a restricted affair. The invitation conspicuously specified that only reporters on the foreign policy and defence beats would be admitted, an apparent attempt to focus minds on the candidate’s platform and not the fake-jobs scandal that has seen him — and just this week his wife, Penelope — placed under formal investigation.
In a large room with stained grey carpeting and posters of a smiling Fillon taped to the walls, the candidate’s podium was emblazoned with his new campaign slogan, “Une volonté pour la France” (The willpower France needs), a motto that recently replaced “Le courage de la vérité” (The courage of truth), which was conceived well before the formal investigation in which he is now accused, among other things, of fraud. At Fillon’s feet, the first four rows were reserved for parliamentarians, former servicemen and others who helped shape the candidate’s defence proposals, mostly grey-haired men in suits, who all stood up when Fillon entered the room. Behind them sat the reporters, vetted per the invitation, judging by several empty seats.
“At the conference where he apologized [for hiring his wife and children], we were far more squeezed in!” one foreign television reporter quipped, referring to early February’s full-house presser.
Touting ‘experience’ over ‘unrealistic’ ideologies
Fillon’s opening remarks on Friday touted his experience with national defence, in a pointed comparison to independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, 39, the race’s neophyte frontunner. Noting that a French president also serves as commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, Fillon said, “Our country can therefore not afford to confide this responsibility to a president of the republic who is immature, inexperienced or cloistered by unrealistic ideological outlines.”
The former prime minister added, “You know that these issues have fascinated me since my youth. I was lucky enough to be president of the National Assembly’s defence committee when I was 31.” Fillon repeatedly mocked Macron’s proposal for a mandatory month-long military service, likening it to asking busy military professionals to run a summer camp.
“I don’t believe soldiers should dedicate a large part of their time to organising holiday camps so young people can skip about and improve their mastery of the French language,” Fillon said, stern in his black suit and black tie. “My platform is serious, realistic, offensive and ambitious.”
An elephant in the room…not called Penelope
But far from the family scandals that have punctuated his campaign, Fillon’s platform has polemical elements of its own. As far as the conservative’s foreign policy is concerned, the elephant in the room isn’t called Penelope, but Putin; reporters put questions about Russia to him first.
During November’s conservative primary, Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded Fillon. Les Républicains’s presidential candidate meanwhile has stumped for Moscow to “once again become a great partner”, deemed sanctions on the country after the annexation of Crimea “absurd” and blasted the “stupid and dangerous cold war” between Europe and Russia.
And yet even after the American senator, Richard Burr, who chairs the US Senate Intelligence Committee currently investigating Russian hacking of the 2016 US presidential election, deemed it probable on Wednesday that the Kremlin was also trying to interfere in the French presidential race, Fillon brushed aside any such concern.
When a German reporter asked whether he feared Russian interference, Fillon made a face as if the question was the first he’d heard of the possibility.
“We must avoid these fantasies. There is enough interference that isn’t welcome in this election campaign that we don’t have to go looking for some in Russia on top of that,” he said. “I think we are sufficiently capable of organizing disorder in our own election campaign.”
In a move critics likened to a tactic favoured by US President Donald Trump, Fillon last week accused France’s president, the Socialist François Hollande, of plotting his downfall using a secret cell within the Elysée Palace. (The Elysée Palace immediately condemned Fillon’s “dishonest allegations in the strongest terms”).
Since January, Fillon’s series of overlapping scandals – alleged fake parliamentary jobs for Fillon’s family members, not declaring a loan from a billionaire friend, the curious gift of bespoke suits from a lawyer associated with African leaders, allegedly receiving payment to help a Lebanese businessman meet Putin – has seen his share of voter intentions drop radically. While Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen are fighting for the lead ahead of April 23’s first round, each polling in the mid-20s, Fillon is languishing in third place, plateauing at or below 20 percent, with only an outside chance of winning a place on the ballot for the run-off duel May 7.
Perhaps significantly, one news medium that did put Fillon ahead of the pack in the first round this week was the Moscow-affiliated Sputnik News, citing Russian pollster Brand Analytics. Sputnik’s report put Fillon at 23.6 percent, a half-point ahead of Macron and nearly three points up on Le Pen, numbers no French pollster is compiling. NATO has called Sputnik “part of a Kremlin propaganda machine”.
“We can consider [Moscow] an enemy and prepare a clash or adopt a second strategy to try and engage in a serious and frank dialogue to put in place conditions for peace in Europe,” he told the reporters on Friday, backing the second option.
“It is not necessary to corner Russia by installing anti-missile missiles on its borders, by accepting that countries that historically have very close links to Russia enter into a defence alliance that everyone understands goes against Russia. We must try to find a balance,” Fillon said, adding it would have been easier to conclude a security agreement with Russia in 2012 or 2013 than it is today, with Russia having dug into its position. Fillon said he is “not naïve; I see the dangers” the Russian regime could pose.
“For the moment, the principal danger for Europe isn’t Russia. The principal danger for Europe is called Islamic totalitarianism,” he said, using a term that has created controversy in its own right, referring as it does to Islam (Islamic), a religion, and not Islamism (Islamist), an ideology exponentially less widespread.
Asked whether he would recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea if elected, Fillon said that wasn’t up to France, but his equivocal answer is not likely to discourage the Kremlin.
“There is an international order, a United Nations. It is in that framework… that the Crimea question must be settled. It isn’t for one state or another to take initiatives and recognize the annexation of Crimea. In any case, it won’t be the case of France, which respects international law,” he said. “But the respect of international law does not forbid posing, in the framework of the UN, the question of the right of peoples to exercise self-determination. Those are two principles that are just as important as one another.”
Meanwhile, for the record, Penelope’s name wasn’t uttered once.
Published in partnership with France24