French populist candidate Marine Le Pen, whose policies and campaign rhetoric often draw comparisons to Donald Trump, now stands a greater chance of winning the French presidency due to recent scandals involving the nepotism and corruption of her chief rival.
For years, Marine Le Pen has arguably been the most well-known “Euroskeptic” politician due to her scathing criticisms of the European Union and her nationalist, populist vision for France. While the mainstream European press and the EU establishment have been able to dismiss her positions for years, the quickly approaching French presidential election – set to take place in April – along with her rising popularity has made Le Pen and the National Front political party she leads impossible to ignore. Yet, those supporting the French status quo have been able to mitigate the possibility of a Le Pen presidency by backing her chief rival, Francois Fillon of the Républicains party. Fillon, often labeled the “frontrunner” by the establishment press, served as Prime Minister of France under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of France’s most unpopular former Presidents.
However, events of the past month seem to have all but doomed Fillon’s candidacy. Earlier in January, a report from the magazine Le Canard echaîné detailed how French financial prosecutors had launched an informal probe into Fillon’s alleged misuse of public funds by funneling an estimated €500,000 ($538,000) to his wife over nearly a decade. According to the report, Fillon’s wife Penelope Fillon received the money for work she never actually did as the funds were intended for parliamentary assistants.
Now, Fillon’s prospects of winning the French presidency look even weaker after a new, explosive report from Le Canard echaîné further exposed Fillon’s nepotism, which was even more far-reaching than previously reported. Among the new revelations were that Penelope Fillon “worked” as a parliamentary assistant for longer than Fillon had admitted and that she was paid €331,000 more than originally reported, making the total payments she received in excess of €831,440 ($897,456). She was also paid another €100,000 for her “work” at a cultural magazine. Not only that, but more of Fillon’s family have now become embroiled in the scandal as two of Fillon’s five children were found to have also been employed as parliamentary assistants, netting an additional €84,000. Fillon, for his part, has denied that he did anything wrong and has promised to remove himself from the presidential race if the corruption probe is formalized. The launching of a formal corruption probe this late the presidential race would be unprecedented.
The latest poll data has suggested that a formal probe may not be necessary to ruin Fillon’s chances of becoming France’s next president. As the Guardian reported, support for Fillon has plummeted in the wake of the allegations, garnering between 18.5 and 20% of the vote compared to Le Pen’s 25%. According to polls from Ifop and BVA, Emmanuel Macron of the En Marchel party has now supplanted Fillon as Le Pen’s closest rival with 20-22% of the vote. However, Le Pen is now leading in key demographics, including among French youth where she now has the support of 27% of the 18-35 year old age group, much higher than that of Fillon (21%) or Macron (12%).
These latest developments in the French presidential race have provoked a growing uncertainty and unease for those opposed to Le Pen and the National Front’s platform. Pro-EU individuals and institutions are particularly concerned about the prospect of a Le Pen victory, largely due to her plan to hold a referendum on whether to remove France from the European Union, popularly known as “Frexit.” If Le Pen were to win the presidency and if such a referendum is held, the future of the entire European Union would be at stake, not just France’s position within it. While growing populism sentiment and discontent with the EU’s policies are spreading throughout France, it may be the corruption of Le Pen’s rivals that could propel her to an unprecedented and historic victory in the upcoming electoral contest.
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