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6 February 2017

François Fillon’s victim rhetoric won’t convince anyone, especially not the press he’s blaming

François Fillon's defence about his wife's fake job scandal sounds a lot like he is blaming the messenger.

By Pauline Bock

After weeks of a fake job scandal surrounding his wife and children, François Fillon’s path to the French presidency seems blocked – but he doesn’t see it that way.

In a press conference this afternoon, the Republican candidate apologised for the “mistake” he had made in employing his wife, before turning to attack the media that have “targeted” him with “amazing violence.” He’s not just blaming the press: he’s insulting the public.

François Fillon has been engulfed in a scandal since the weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that his wife Penelope had been paid up to €900.000 as his parliamentary assistant between 2005 and 2007 and various other jobs for close friends of Fillon – though no proof of her doing actual work could be found. No one in parliament could remember ever seeing her, and no work email or security badge had ever been issued to her name. The TV programme Envoyé Spécial aired an old interview with her, in which she says she has “never been” her husband’s assistant.

French media also reported that François Fillon had employed his children as assistants in the Senate, paying them €84.000 over three years, while they were still students. His son Charles is believed to have actually been working on Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign, Le Monde reported today. If proven, this could be a criminal offense of “illicit financing of an electoral campaign”.

In his press conference, Fillon admitted his wife had worked for him, said he would publish all the information regarding his wife’s job online, admitted he had made a “mistake” and presented his “apologies to the French people.” Then he blamed the media. By reporting the stories, he said, the press had “attacked the centre-right candidate” in an operation “never seen before in the fifth Republic”.

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It’s not the first time Fillon uses the rhetoric of the victim. In a video on his Facebook page last week, he declared he would “hold firm” against “a system trying to break” him and against “a left once again trying to attack” him. But by trying to turn the tide and blame the media, he is playing a very dangerous game. And a dumb one, with that: he got his facts wrong. He quoted the journalist Kim Willsher, who had filmed the 2007 interview with Penelope used in this week’s Envoyé Spécial, saying she had phoned to tell Penelope how shocked she was by the use of her video. Willsher (now a journalist at The Guardian) confirmed to French journalists after the conference she never phoned the Fillon to say such a thing. That’s probably just the start of a joyful week of fact-checking for French reporters.

“It isn’t up to the media to judge me,” Fillon added, “but up to the French people”. Unfortunately, he may feel betrayed on that side, too: according to an Ifop poll published this morning, 68 per cent of French voters wish to see Fillon step down. The Republican candidate has declared he would withdraw from the race if a formal inquiry was opened – though his office has been searched, the police investigation is only preliminary for now.

There is no guideline in the Republican rulebook if Fillon withdraws. A new primary or a last-minute replacement candidate would be a nightmare for the centre-right party, which would have to reorganise its campaign as well as its funding and donations system in a very short time. His rival in the primary run-up, Alain Juppé, has said he would not run and tweeted again this morning: “To the authors of unfounded rumours, a confirmation: for me, No means NO.”

Fillon himself has admitted that “there is no plan B”. But he faces an uphill battle in the polls. The Republican is now in third place, after liberal Emmanuel Macron, whom he called a “guru” but who could take some of Fillon’s centre-right votes while “danger” Marine Le Pen may grab a few on the far-right end. And now Socialist Hamon’s ratings are now on the rise, too (he hasn’t found a nickname for him, yet). 

Fillon’s truth operation sure sounds a lot like a desperate gesture. Whether or not he is, as he pretends, of “irreproachable ethics”, his railing against the press and the effrontery of his declarations will help neither his campaign coverage nor his polls ratings. It would take a miracle, or true political brilliance, for François Fillon to reach the French presidential election’s second round.