Will corruption win Marine Le Pen the French election?
06 Apr 2017

Fake parliamentary jobs, illegal campaign donations and secretive meetings with Putin—these accusations have been directed in equal measure at right-wing French Presidential candidates François Fillon and Marine Le Pen since the start of 2017.

Why then has support for the more moderate Fillon melted away, whilst far-right Le Pen has soared to the top of the polls? With less than three weeks to go until the first round of the election on April 23, analysis of the corrupt practices of two of its major candidates has become central to predicting its outcome.

Before January 25th, François Fillon, unexpectedly chosen as France’s Republican party candidate, liked to refer to himself as “Mr Clean.” “One cannot lead France if one is not irreproachable”, he declared at his party’s summer conference last year, a catchphrase he reiterated for posterity in a later tweet. This image chimed well with his socially conservative Catholic support base. Combined with a string of manifesto pledges which include a ban on burkinis, it helped propel him to the position of clear favourite and champion of “family values.”

Fillon’s aura of purety is also what gave the stream of corruption allegations against him such political bite. On the morning of January 25th, satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné broke the news that he had spent €800,000 of state money on fake jobs for his wife; in an Odoxa poll released the very next day, his popularity had dropped by four percentage points as compared to January 8th.

Since then, accusations that Fillon created fake parliamentary assistant jobs for his children, received luxury suits from an African financier, signed a $50,000 deal with Lebanese oil entrepreneur Fouad Makhzoumi in 2015, and attended secret meetings with Makhzoumi and Vladimir Putin have done little to check his demise.

Le Pen would now thrash Fillon by ten percent of the vote—assuming he were even to make it to the election’s second round on May 7th. What’s more, a recent Odoxa poll showed that nine out of ten French voters now see the former Prime Minister as dishonest. It therefore comes as little surprise that Fillon has been replaced as Le Pen’s main competitor by 39 year-old Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist ‘En Marche’ party, less than a year old, is as yet untainted by any such allegations. A poll conducted by Ifop-Fiducial (IFOP) on March 24th put Le Pen’s support at 26%, followed closely by Macron at 25%.

If the link between corruption and political downfall were so straightforward, one would expect Le Pen to be doing a lot worse than she is. Her Front National Party was described as “systemically corrupt” by one of her former advisers, after a string of scandals surfaced.

These include allegations that she had in the past artificially deflated the value of her share in a family castle near Paris (her 12.5% stake was declared as €142,800 in 2015 before later being adjusted to €312,500 in 2017).

Most of the concerns, however, relate to the financing of Le Pen’s party, which has suffered from the reluctance of French banks to affiliate themselves with the far-right. Le Pen is suspected of having spent €336,000 of European Union money to pay party political aides. In the past few years, the Front National has also come under fire for its reliance on financing from Russian banks. In particular, a £9.4m loan received in 2014 from First Czech Russian Bank, linked to the Kremlin, landed shortly after Le Pen publicly expressed support for Russian annexation of Crimea. In a recent episode of the BBC’s Panorama, Marine Le Pen’s own father claimed she deliberately kept a past meeting with Putin “a secret”.

 

Le Pen on a recent visit to Russia. Source: eu.kremlin.ru
Le Pen on a recent visit to Russia. Source: eu.kremlin.ru

 

The reason all of this has failed to slow Le Pen’s ascent in first round polls is simply that “her support base was never voting for her as a champion of political transparency”, says Dr Sabina Zinkhöfer, head of the Ethics Group at Sciencespo. Instead, “Le Pen throws herself into the political game not for something but against something … Some 25% of voters will choose Le Pen come what may, because they feel alone in Europe, alone in the face of unemployment, and filled with a sense that there is one reality for Parisians and a tougher reality for everyone else”, Dr Zinkhöfer told KYC360.

Le Pen’s supporters outdo French voters of all other persuasions in the unwavering nature of their loyalty, with 80% of them certain they will vote for her, according to a recent IFOP poll. So although Le Pen no longer benefits from EU parliamentary immunity at a legal level, she is politically shielded by her unyielding support base. Le Pen fuels her supporters’ defiant attitude by refusing to attend summons for questioning by French police, and by omitting to echo Fillon’s reassurance that he will stand down if formally charged.

Deflection and evasion also define Le Pen’s political strategy. Where her rivals’ manifestos emphasise labour market and taxation reform, she focuses on the clash of “local against global”. After a difficult year for France in which 231 people died as a result of terrorist attacks on its soil, Le Pen is skilful at focusing political debate on explosive issues of culture and belonging. She played these feelings in the first presidential debate: her main line was to denounce a “generalised disorder” in France, epitomised by vulnerability to Islamic terrorism and uncontrolled migration.

Perhaps Le Pen’s most powerful tool against allegations of corruption remains to straightforwardly dismiss them as ‘fake news’, fabricated by an establishment which is itself morally tarnished. Of course, Fillon also claims that he is the victim of “media lynching”, and recently accused current Prime Minister François Hollande of seeking to eliminate him from the race by leaking classified documents to the judiciary. But when Le Pen talks of the justice system being “manipulated” for political ends, it chimes much better with her existing discourse as a critic of the establishment.

Endemic corruption scandals have long been a determining force in French politics, in a country which was ranked well below the United States and other European countries like Germany, the UK and the Netherlands in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index 2016. Most recently, Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux’s resignation over fake parliamentary jobs for his daughters added fuel to an on-going debate about the employment of family members as parliamentary assistants, (something one fifth of French deputies do).

It is against this background that most polls show Le Pen losing out to Macron in the second round. The former Rothschild banker claims to be the only candidate financing his campaign independently, and vocally insists on transparency in the online application process for would-be parliamentary deputies. His ‘En Marche’ movement, which he refuses to dub a ‘party’, was founded last April. Much like Le Pen, and unlike Fillon, he is able to use his position as a relative outsider to promise French voters a “profound renewal of political life.”

Nonetheless, the systematic bias against populist candidates in polling is well documented, and the high spread between French and German bond yields points to market fears Le Pen could still win out. Many think that on the day, a fragmented centre under Fillon and leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon could play out in her favour, as could high levels of abstention across the political spectrum.

When fifth-place socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon spoke on March 22nd of a “climate of corruption” sullying the whole French election campaign, he echoed a sentiment now widespread across much of France. What remains to be seen is whether this anxiety is shared by the unwavering 25% of voters across vast deprived swathes of France who allow Le Pen to reap the benefits of her rivals’ corruption charges without being held to account for her own.

Kenza Bryan is a freelance reporter for publications including L’Express, City A.M. and The Independent.

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