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Rivals blast defiant Fillon as allies pull support

Christophe Archambault, AFP | François Fillon at Paris’s Agricultural Salon on March 1, 2017.

French conservative candidate François Fillon’s defiance in the face of news he faces a formal investigation in the fake-jobs scandal bedeviling his presidential campaign has seen ripples of reaction across France’s political spectrum.

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In an Elysée Palace statement, President François Hollande defended France’s judicial system against Fillon’s allegations of bias.

“As guarantor of the independence of the judicial authorities, I want to speak out against any calling into question of the judges,” Hollande said, never referring to the former prime minister by name.

“Being a presidential candidate doesn’t authorise you to cast suspicion on the work of police and judges ... or to make extremely serious accusations against the justice system and our institutions more broadly,” he said.

Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas also responded to the suggestion magistrates were acting on the orders of Hollande’s Socialist government. "The investigating magistrates are carrying out their probes in total independence," Urvoas said in a statement.

Allies withdraw

Fillon’s own European and international affairs advisor quit the embattled conservative’s campaign Wednesday, in the wake of Fillon’s announcement that he would press on. Bruno Le Maire had finished fifth in the conservative primary’s first round last November, calling on his supporters at the time to back Fillon for the nomination.

“On January 26, François Fillon told the French people that [if charged], he would withdraw his candidacy to the presidency of the French Republic. I believe in respecting one’s word,” Le Maire said in a statement, adding it was key to political credibility and necessary in order to lead France’s recovery efforts. “In keeping with my principles, I therefore resign from my duties,” he said. A number of parliamentarians allied with Le Maire announced they would follow suit and withdraw from Fillon’s campaign.

The conservative candidate suffered a further blow late Wednesday afternoon when the Union of Democrats and Independents, a small centrist party, said it was “suspending” its support. Party chief Jean-Christophe Lagarde said the leadership would meet next week to decide whether to fully withdraw its backing for the embattled conservative.

Rivals on the offensive

Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist candidate who has overtaken Fillon in polling ahead of April’s first round, said, “Mr Fillon chooses to speak in grand terms; it’s more of a sign of losing his nerve or of losing his sense of reality.” In response to Fillon’s suggestion that the people be left to decide on the probity of his actions, Macron responded that the democratic vote shouldn’t be ascribed the role of “absolution”.

“If some today are proposing a truce, it must apply to all crimes and misdemeanors,” said Macron, who may well stand to gain the most from rival candidates’ legal troubles. “If [National Front leader] Marine Le Pen or François Fillon today are proposing a judicial truce, I understand therefore that they would propose it for delinquents, for criminals, because one cannot reserve it for white-collar delinquents or the political class alone,” Macron said. “I am in favour of zero tolerance for everyone.”

Left-wing presidential rivals were also on the offensive after Fillon’s defiant statement Wednesday.

Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon complained that the Fillon scandal is lending a “mediocrity” to the current presidential campaign. “[Fillon] borrows the same tone that all politicians placed under formal investigation use, explaining they are victims of a media, political, judicial conspiracy; all of that is not serious,” Hamon told reporters during a campaign stop in Brittany. “He cannot be the one who, in his leaflets, asks that legal proceedings be accelerated, who denounces judicial permissiveness… and then reproach judges for doing their job in a context where it is legitimate that he be heard by the judiciary,” the Socialist said.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left La France insoumise candidate, deemed the situation “unhealthy” and “not good for democracy”. He said, “It’s not my side… but it almost makes me sad for my compatriots who should have the right to have a candidate who could be, dare I say, presentable. Every citizen is summoned, by his vote, to vote [Fillon] an immunity. That’s what it comes down to. That is not at all the purpose of the election. Everything is distorted. The best would surely be if they chose another candidate for themselves so we could have a real debate.”

Penelopegate

French media has reported that Penelope Fillon, the conservative candidate’s Welsh-born wife, was paid almost €1 million to serve for several years as his parliamentary assistant, a job she may never have performed. Further investigations in the so-called Penelopegate scandal have found no evidence she carried out any government work and Mrs Fillon has denied, in a statement captured on film, ever having worked as an assistant to her husband. A source close to the probe told Agence France-Presse Wednesday that Mrs Fillon has also received a summons and is due to be placed under formal investigation.

Two of Fillon’s five children were also employed as parliamentary assistants, earning an additional €84,000 while their father served in the Senate.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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