Francois Fillon admits ‘error’ but refuses to quit French race

Former favourite for presidency offers robust defence in fake jobs scandal

Francois Fillon, presidential candidate of France’s main conservative party Les Républicains. “What was acceptable yesterday is no longer accepted . . . It was an error. I profoundly regret it and I present my excuses to the French.” Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Francois Fillon, presidential candidate of France’s main conservative party Les Républicains. “What was acceptable yesterday is no longer accepted . . . It was an error. I profoundly regret it and I present my excuses to the French.” Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

 

Francois Fillon, the presidential candidate for France’s main conservative party Les Républicains (LR), delivered a strong performance on Monday, when he adamantly refused to withdraw from the race.

Mr Fillon was long favoured to win the presidential run-off on May 7th. He is now running third in opinion polls, behind Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.

He denounced the “lynching” and “political assassination” to which he has been subjected by “those who do not want the right to be in the presidential election”.

In reports published on January 25th and February 1st, the investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that Mr Fillon’s Welsh wife Penelope and their children, Marie and Charles, were paid an aggregate of €1,015,175 for allegedly fictitious jobs at the National Assembly, Senate and a literary review owned by a millionaire friend of Mr Fillon.

Referring to Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron, Mr Fillon said France faces “the danger of seeing our future entrusted to the excesses of the extreme right embodied by this family of untouchables . . . or the adventure of politics without a programme, of personalities fascinated by a guru who came out of the system he denounces today.”

Had Mr Fillon held the same press conference within a day or two of the scandal breaking, it might have saved his chances of winning the presidency. If, as he promised, he stays in the race, the odds of his making it to the run-off appear severely compromised.

Asked why he took so long to address the accusations, Mr Fillon said they “hit me in the gut. I did not expect such violence. It took time to react, to realise the sky had fallen on me . . . Now I am standing up.”

Parliamentarians from LR had begun circulating a petition for Mr Fillon to withdraw. His categorical refusal – and the party’s incapacity to agree on a “plan B” – may quell the mutiny.

Opinion polls had failed to predict Mr Fillon’s surprise victory in the LR primary in November, he noted. “Nothing will make me change my mind. I am the candidate for the presidential election and I intend to win.”

Mr Fillon admitted, “Yes, I employed my wife as a collaborator.” Penelope Fillon worked for him, then for his replacement as deputy in the National Assembly, then for him again, he said, for a total of 15 years.

Her average monthly salary was €3,677 net, Mr Fillon said, promising to publish a chart of payments to Penelope on his website overnight. Everything was taxed, he said, reproaching media who having reported gross salaries “to create a sensation”. Any gross salary over a period of 15 years “would appear spectacular”, he said.

There was no reason to reimburse the taxpayers’ money used to pay his family members, since they did legitimate work, Mr Fillon said. He denied reports that his son worked for Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign when paid to be his Senate aide.

Mr Fillon did not address the €100,000 paid to his wife by the millionaire Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière for alleged work as a “literary adviser”, starting a year and a half after Mr Fillon, as prime minister, awarded Lacharrière the grand-croix de la Légion d’honneur.

According to Le Monde, investigators suspect Lacharrière rewarded Mr Fillon’s use of his political influence.

Mr Fillon stressed repeatedly that it is perfectly legal for parliamentarians to hire family members . “Collaborating with one’s family in politics is a practice now rejected by the French. What was acceptable yesterday is no longer accepted . . . It was an error. I profoundly regret it and I present my excuses to the French.”