French presidential candidate François Fillon won a temporary reprieve in charges that he paid his wife and children €880,000 for work they did not do. The charges are dubbed Penelopegate” after his wife Penelope.
An investigation has started, but so far he has not been charged. The investigation is unlikely to conclude before the election. Should Fillon win, he will have presidential immunity.
Magistrates in charge of prosecuting financial crime on Friday opened a formal investigation into claims the conservative candidate misused state funds to pay his wife Penelope and two of his children for fictitious work as parliamentary aides. They gave three judges the task of starting a fresh investigation.
The prosecutors said they made the move to prevent some of the events from falling under the statute of limitations. Investigative judges will look into possible embezzlement, influence-peddling and failure to comply with transparency obligations, they said.
The decision, which caps a preliminary inquiry, suggests that there is enough ground to continue probing the claims that were reported by weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné last month. But it also means police have not gathered evidence to allow the case to be sent straight to trial.
With less than two months to go before the election, the opening of a formal investigation is nevertheless an improvement on Mr. Fillon’s previous situation. Given the typically lengthy schedule of such probes, the presidential hopeful is now almost certain he will not be charged before the run-off round on May 7.
If he is elected, he — but not his relatives — would benefit from presidential immunity. This will help him fend off calls from within his own camp for a “Plan B” candidate.
The “Penelopegate” affair will nevertheless continue to tarnish Mr. Fillon’s campaign. At each political rally, he has been met by loud crowds of protesters hitting saucepans and demanding he reimburse the money.
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As the battle for the presidency hotted up, signs that Emmanuel Macron, the centrist presidential contender, was polling strongly raised the possibility that he would make the second round vote to face FN candidate Marine Le Pen.
“We needed a real campaign against Macron,” Gaëtan Bertrand, head of the online organisation, recalled in a recent interview, one of several people who talked to the Financial Times about the inside workings of the FN’s digital operations. “He’s about marketing rather than policies. He’s supported by the media and the establishment against the interest of the people.”
Their response was a series of online videos aimed at halting the Macron momentum. One honed on a perceived lack of policies, depicting the 39-year-old as a “candidate of the void” whose statements were chosen by a slot machine.
Another picked on a recent trip to Algeria, during which he outraged FN supporters by describing the French colonial occupation as a “crime against humanity”, splicing footage of Mr. Macron talking with shots of jubilant north Africans, and asking whether he wanted to be president of France or Algeria.
For decades, the fight for the French presidency took place in rowdy town halls and cobbled village squares across the country. But as with Donald Trump’s successful bid for the White House and the campaign for the UK to leave the EU, the battlefield today has shifted online to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — and other, darker corners of the internet.
The FN online unit is at the forefront. A dedicated and powerful group, the messages it pumps out form the bedrock of an aggressive social media operation that is the most powerful in French politics. Ms. Le Pen has 1.3m Twitter followers, and almost as many Facebook “likes”, more than twice as many as Mr. Macron — despite his supposed youthful appeal. The other main presidential candidate ahead of the first round on April 23, the 62-year-old conservative François Fillon, has even fewer.
“Marine Le Pen is a force to be reckoned with in social media,” says Gaelle Bertrand at Kantar Media, a consultancy. “She has a strong following and drives further engagement by targeting rival candidates.” Mr. Trump employed a similar strategy to win the US election.
The move to investigate Fillon but not charge him benefits le Pen. Had Fillon been charged, he would have stepped down, and it would have been Macron vs. le Pen in the final round.
If the choice is between le Pen and Fillon, I believe socialists will pick le Pen. Fillon wants to cut 500,000 civil service jobs and that will not play well with the Leftists.
le Pen has lots of momentum in both two-way matches, and she might win against either candidate.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock