Conservatives in France rejoiced at the victory of François Fillon, Nicolas Sarkozy’s former prime minister, when he won the primaries of the French conservative party Les Républicains. Fillon seemed to be a true conservative, by which I mean someone attached to liberty and authority, not a reincarnation of Napoleon or a fake progressive, as French conservative politicians usually are. However, the recent revelations about him hiring his wife Penelope and his children as political advisers a few years ago when he was an MP, while she herself denied she worked for her husband, changed the game.
The courts will have to decide if Penelope Fillon’s job was “fictional” — that is, if she received money when she wasn’t really working, as Le Canard Enchaîné, the satirical magazine which broke the news, put it. But the anger of voters today is not about the legality of the job but its morality. Of course, in a family business you can hire members of your family. But it is your business and you will bear the consequences of this choice. In French politics, however, you can hire someone of your family thanks to someone else’s money — the taxpayers’ — without really suffering the consequences of a bad choice. MPs hiring their spouses as political advisers has not been uncommon in recent French political history; currently, more than 100 deputies out of 577 do so. But it seems that nowadays voters won’t stand for it any more, especially when there is no transparency and the salary of the spouse is seen as too high. How strange, Fillon may be thinking, everyone in politics has always done this, and I’m the one who gets the blame!
What is even more fascinating in this case is that it encapsulates many French political vices. Lack of accountability and transparency are obvious candidates, but there are others. Take the independence of the press. How strange that the story is breaking now, when Fillon has been a politician for his whole professional life. Why hasn’t the press tried to investigate him previously? The French press is too close to politicians: it doesn’t want to annoy them when it needs them, but when one has become an easy target and is for that reason no longer useful, it acts without pity, like now. Another vice is the ambiguous relationship of politicians with business: Penelope Fillon was also employed as a literary adviser by the Revue des Deux Mondes, a journal owned by a powerful businessman, Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
Last but not least, in French politics, politicians’ wives matter. They play a role in their husbands’ careers, but they can also be very damaging to them. Some were able to make the most of it: Jacques Chirac would not have succeeded without the intelligence and wealth of his wife Bernadette, on whom he frequently cheated. Sarkozy’s estrangement from his wife Cécilia was made public just after his election as president, but he soon found in his new wife, Carla Bruni, a stunning ally. But most suffered from their relationships with women: the fact that François Mitterrand had a child out of wedlock and secretly subsidised her and her mother with taxpayers’ money has damaged his reputation. François Hollande was ridiculed when it was discovered that he was cheating on his partner with an actress whom he used to visit so discreetly that he was still wearing his scooter helmet when he entered her flat. His partner, Valérie Trierweiler, had often revealed, especially on Twitter, her jealousy of Hollande’s former partner and the mother of his children, the Environment Minister Ségolène Royal. Now it is Penelope Fillon who could bury her husband’s presidential hopes.
Let’s not forget either Brigitte Macron. The wife of Emmanuel Macron, the civil servant turned politician, is 24 years older than him, which apparently annoys some voters and helps to encourage a rumour (spread by Russian “fake news”, according to French intelligence) that Macron is having a gay affair. As Alexandre Dumas wrote, “Cherchez la femme!”