French public grow tired of scandal-plagued election

Clare Sergent
French conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon delivers his speech during the rally in Orleans: AP

It's 8am in a crowded Parisian café. People are leaning on the counter, sipping their morning coffee. The news bulletin is playing on the TV, giving the latest information concerning François Fillon’s “fake jobs scandals”.

Mr Fillon was considered the favourite for the French presidential election after winning the Republican primary until the scandal over the legitimacy (or not) of jobs provided for family members broke. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is also facing an investigation into “fake jobs” at the European Parliament. Both candidates deny any wrongdoing, but if you add in a recent probe into a Las Vegas event attended by centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron when he was finance minister, it makes for a scandal-plagued election.

And it appears many French voters are starting to tire of all the allegations. “I'm tired of this campaign, I don't even want to listen,” complains Francis Goodman, aged 58, a commercial manager for a lift company. Isabelle Morard, aged 60, who works as a nail technician in Paris, nods and says: “the media should stop being constantly in a loop, there is necessarily something else to say than those alleged cases”. Her retired husband adds: “There’s nothing new, they have always been doing that, all of them. So they should give us a break”.

“The majority of French people are fed up with those never-ending stories which pollute the campaign,” says Frédéric Dabi, the director of Ifop, a French polling institute. And that is reflected in a rise in the potential abstention rate by voters.

A study released this week forecasts a rise in abstentions in the first round to 36 per cent. In comparison, abstention reached 20.5 per cent in the first round in 2012 and it did not exceed 16.2 per cent in 2007. “Now, the French want to judge on the manifestos [of the candidates] Mr Dabi says.

Feelings are strongest among Mr Fillon’s supporters. Alexandre Meyniel, a lawyer, used to back Nicolas Sarkozy but now stands firm behind Mr Fillon as the centre-right’s elected candidate. “France is experiencing an extremely difficult period of unemployment, terrorism and identity tensions, and this campaign should be of the utmost importance, but there is no campaign, it was buried under legal allegations.”

To him, there is a feeling of “confiscation, of fierceness, not only because the timing, the rapidity of justice…are confusing, but also because the majority of the right-wing electorate remains convinced that François Fillon has the best policy programme, but it is impossible for him to talk about it.”

Olivier Garrault, 44, an engineer father of two girls believes they “are millions who have a real anger at the bottom of their hearts”. He strongly fears how Mr Fillon’s supporters will vote in the second round of the voting (held on 7 May, after the first round on 23 April), when only the top two candidates will remain.

If Mr Fillon is eliminated in the first round – with polls showing he has slipped behind Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen – Mr Garrault thinks “80 per cent [of Mr Fillon’s supporters] will vote for Le Pen only out of anger and vengeance. The other 20 per cent will abstain.”

The announcement this week that the fraud investigation into Mr Fillon has been widened to include luxury suits he received as gifts, has only exacerbated the tensions.The French weekly newspaper, “Le Journal du Dimanche” revealed last Sunday that Mr Fillon had received close to 50,000 Euros worth of suits and clothing since 2012, alleging a potential conflict of interest. Mr Fillon has denied all allegations against him.

Another customer in the Paris cafe, Gilles Igonnet, exclaims: “It makes me angry, the charge against Fillon is completely disproportionate to the ‘supposed’ fault”.

Mr Fillon, 63, has insisted he will fight on despite an Odoxa opinion poll on Friday showing that three-quarters of French voters want him to pull out of the race. He was one of the 11 candidates to be confirmed by France’s Constitutional Council this weekend as running in the first round. However, Mr Fillon has work to do if he wants to overturn Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen with a BVA poll released on Saturday showing Ms Le Pen receiving 26 per cent of the vote in the first round, Mr Macron getting 25 per cent and Mr Fillon trailing in third with 19.5 per cent. Mr Macron is expected to beat Ms Le Pen in the final round.

A chance for Mr Fillon to try and close that gap will come on Monday evening when the first debate involving the five main candidates, Ms Le Pen, Mr Fillon, Mr Macron, Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon and leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, will be held, and shown live on national TV.

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