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France

Hoping to put scandals to rest, France’s Fillon touts Thatcherite platform

© François Nascimbeni, AFP | Once the presidential frontrunner, François Fillon is scrambling to keep his campaign for the Elysée Palace alive.

Video by Belle Lupton

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2017-03-14

Having somehow survived the scandal involving his wife’s lushly paid “fake jobs”, François Fillon attempted on Monday to get his campaign for the French presidency back on track – only to find himself mired in further controversy.

Remember TINA? Margaret Thatcher’s oft-quoted slogan, “There Is No Alternative” (TINA), has become Fillon’s mantra as he scrambles to revive his limping campaign for the presidency. TINA is how he bullied his party into backing him, despite a festering scandal that has sent his poll numbers tumbling down. “You simply don’t have a plan B,” he told the sceptics, who duly fell into line. Now France’s former prime minister hopes the same trick will get voters behind his blood-sweat-and-tears plan to slash public spending and hike working hours. Much as Thatcher claimed there was no alternative to free-market capitalism and mass privatisation, Fillon says his plan to streamline the economy is the “only way to put France back on its feet”.

On Monday, the candidate for the centre-right Les Républicains party launched a media offensive to promote his agenda, described as “Thatcherite” by the French press. Fillon, who has welcomed comparisons to the former “Iron Lady”, renewed his pledge to trim the public sector by shedding half a million public sector jobs over five years. In a string of media interviews and a press conference, he said he planned to slash state spending by a whopping €100 billion, scrap a tax on the wealthy and further liberalise France’s labour market.

In a concession to the centrists in his camp, the conservative candidate promised deeper cuts to workers’ social security contributions. He also agreed to exclude certain sectors, including the hotel and restaurant industries, from plans to hike VAT sales tax. But he reiterated his pledge to abolish the 35-hour working week and push the retirement age to 65 from the current 62 – moves that would set the stage for a showdown with trade unions, which Fillon has vowed to tame, Thatcher-style.

Bunker campaign

Fillon’s ambitious programme largely mirrors the platform that carried him to a stunning victory in conservative primaries last November. Back then, the former prime minister was seen as a shoo-in for the Élysée Palace. With the ruling Socialists all but written off, opinion polls suggested the conservative candidate would ease into the May 7 run-off and trounce far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But in the quicksand of French politics, nothing has gone according to plan.

The former presidential frontrunner has seen his ratings crumble in the wake of “Penelopegate”, as the scandal involving his wife’s allegedly fictitious jobs is commonly known. Allegations that Penelope Fillon was paid almost €900,000 from state funds for doing little or no work as his parliamentary assistant have shattered the conservative nominee’s carefully crafted image as the candidate of “integrity”. They also sit uncomfortably with his plans to slash public spending and remove half a million people from the state’s payroll.

Fillon and the anti-gay marriage vote

The scandal – which worsened when it emerged Fillon had also offered two of his children generous salaries from the public purse – has effectively prevented the former PM from campaigning, limiting his outings to closed meetings with a carefully vetted audience. When he does venture outside, Fillon is surrounded by protective cordons of supporters, designed to shield him from the inevitable hecklers. Surveys say he is now unlikely to make it into the crucial second round of France’s presidential election.

Another day, another scandal

Fillon's attempt to revive his flagging campaign comes two days before he is due to meet judges investigating the “fake jobs” scandal. The magistrates are expected to put him officially under investigation on counts of suspected misuse of public funds. But contrary to what he initially announced, the former prime minister has declared he will not drop out of the race if that happens. Instead, the usually mild-mannered Fillon has railed against the media and the judiciary, accusing both of attempting to “muzzle” right-wing voters and stage an “institutional coup” supposedly masterminded by the ruling Socialists.

Even as he prepared his counter-attack, the embattled candidate again found himself on the defensive at the weekend, after France’s main Sunday paper, the Journal du Dimanche, claimed he had received close to €50,000 worth of luxury clothing since 2012, including two bespoke suits worth €13,000 earlier this year. "A friend gave me suits as a present in February. So what?" countered an irate Fillon, acknowledging only the latter gift. But as lawmaker Olivier Faure pointed out in a tweet, the ethics code of the French National Assembly, of which Fillon is a member, says any gift of more than €150 has to be declared. And French election rules put a €4,600 cap on individual donations to candidates for the Élysée.

Adding to Fillon's own woes, his conservative party caused another uproar by tweeting a caricature of centrist rival Emmanuel Macron that was eerily reminiscent of 1930s anti-Semitic propaganda. The former French economy minister, who has sailed ahead of the beleaguered conservative candidate in opinion polls, was drawn with a hooked nose and a top hat, using a red sickle to cut a cigar. Macron is not Jewish, but the image appeared to refer to his past as an investment banker, and Fillon was forced to acknowledge it had used markers from “a dark period in our history”. He added on Twitter: "Politics is tough but it must remain dignified. I will not tolerate my party using caricatures that use the themes of anti-Semitic propaganda."

 

Date created : 2017-03-13

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