Francois Fillon has steadily lost ground in polls after newspaper Le Canard Enchainé reported that the former prime minister had paid his wife, Penelope, 500,000 euros for work she did not seem to have done.
Just days previously, the former prime minister has been the favorite to win the two round French presidential election in April-may. But the decision on January 25th by judicial investigators to launch a preliminary inquiry into misuse of public funds by Mr Fillon, after ''Canard Enchainé'' revelations, shocked many of his supporters.
Francois Fillon's candidacy was of probity and honour. ''One cannot lead France, he declared during ''Les Républicains'' primary, last year, unless one is beyond reproach''. It turned out that Mr Fillon had employed his wife, Penelope, possibly from a far as back 1988, for a total pre-tax sum of over $863,000, as well as two of his children when they were students. This is not illegal, some 20% of French deputies employ a family member. But the newspaper could find no trace that Ms Fillon had done any work.
Declaring himself ''scandalized'' by the misogyny behind the allegations, and the victim of slander, Mr Fillon argued that his wife had done real work: correcting speeches, constituency work and so forth. In an interview with a British newspaper, back in 2007, Ms Fillon claimed that she never worked for her husband. That video, which would be aired tonight in France 2, is the new twist that might force Mr Fillon out of the race.
Investigators are also looking into pay she received from a publication for which she appeared to write little. Investigators, this week summoned the couple for questioning and searched Mr Fillon's parliamentary office. In a bid to show that he had nothing to hide, Mr Fillon said that he would stand down, as ''Les Républicains'' candidate, if he is put under formal investigation.
''Penelopegate'' has rudely shaken the Fillon's camp. His lieutenants have been dispatched to the airwaves to defend their candidate. His team is preparing to face down fresh allegations as they arise. But in private those close to him recognize that Mr Fillon has a big problem. Some are beginning to think through what would happen if Mr Fillon had to step down. Mr Juppé, the runner-up, has ruled out taking his place, but might be persuadable. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, would lack credibility after being roundly beaten in the primary. The party has no procedure for selecting a substitute.
Mr Fillon's difficulties have turned and already-uncertain election into one of the most unpredictable in recent history. The French, it seems, are in no mood to vote in line with any pre-written script. Only seven points now separate the leading three candidates in first-round voting: Marine Le Pen of the populist ''Front National'' (27%,), Mr Emmanuel Macron, the centrist of a new movement ''En Marche'' (23%) and Fillon (20%). Each has a chance of making it into the second round. This, in itself, is extraordinary: just six months ago, neither Mr Fillon nor Mr Macron was considered by his own camp to be a credible contender.
Such fluidity suggests that caution is also in order when it comes to the left, which elected Benoit Hamon as the ''Parti Socialiste'' candidate on January 29th. A former backbench rebel, he crushed Manuel Valss, his former boss and ex prime minister, in the primary run-off with 59% of the vote. Mr Hamon remains an outsider, drawing roughly 15% in national polls, His promises to shorten the working week to 32 hours, legalize cannabis and finance a universal monthly income of 750 euros through a tax on robots were dismissed by his detractors, including Mr Valls, as ''Utopian reverie''.
Despondent Socialists have begun to defect to Mr Macron. Yet Mr Hamon's unexpected victory gives him that elusive political quality, momentum. And he speaks to metropolitan, white-collar voters who are worried about green issues, consumerism and the future of work.
Internal divisions and doubts about their candidates are now testing the unity of both ''Parti Socialiste'' and ''Les Républicains''. There are the political families that have alternated in the presidency since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.
French party politics has seldom appeared so unstable. And the chief beneficiaries right now are those who have identified themselves as political insurgents against the established party system: the centrist, Mr Macron with ''En Marche'' and the populist Marine Le Pen with ''Front National''.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert/Author
Photo Credit: AFP-photo of '' Les Républicains'' Candidate: Francois Fillon and his wife: Penelope Fillon.