With the way he presents himself, he could have become president: A pious catholic, a man of law and order, a man with a sense for sound finances. Francois Fillon, the presidential candidate of the conservative Republicans, presents himself as the counterforce to France's current leader, Socialist Francois Hollande. Hollande announced that he wanted to be judged on the success of his fight against unemployment when he took office five years ago. Yet, nothing would come of that fight. In fact, unemployment numbers went up during his tenure.
Hollande also annoyed many French because they thought he gave too much attention to issues such as gender and LGBT rights, or the future of national identity. Too much as well, because beyond the academic discussions, many French citizens have seen the reality of their living conditions dramatically worsen. Ever more citizens are experiencing financial problems, and society is becoming increasingly divided between rich and poor; between people who have excellent prospects, and those who have little chance of getting ahead. Hollande's 2012 dictum that, "It's not that bad if we lose workers," was seen by many as an expression of the utter arrogance with which he and his Socialist party viewed voters. Many perceived it as the ultimate betrayal of the party's traditional base.
Catholic and down to earth
Fillon knew how to present himself as the person who would solve all of those problems; as a tough reformer who would right the Republic's financial ship. Further, the staunch catholic, who never failed to emphasize his connection with rural France, represented a sense of civil patriotism. It was a patriotism less extreme than the nationalism espoused by the far-right populist National Front, but he sent signals strong enough to appeal to the instincts of the country's conservative voters. All that made him appear as the antithesis of the aloof upper class that many French view as more interested in political correct discourse than in the harsh reality that the country faces.
That image may be gone forever. If Fillon fails to quickly provide evidence to counter accusations now being leveled against him, he risks being seen by many French as an especially cynical representative of a class of people they already view as cynical. Fillon has called for a longer work week without pay hikes; he wants to cut 500,000 public sector jobs to help balance the budget. But this man may turn out to be someone who diverted hundreds of thousands of euros in government money to himself and his family in an extremely immoral fashion.
Golden opportunity for National Front
His wife, it turns out, was paid as a parliamentary assistant, earning a salary three times the job's average. That may be legal, but it is hardly legitimate or fair - especially since there is scant evidence that his wife did anything to earn the money. Further moral doubt was sown when it came to light that Penelope Fillon had also been on the payroll of the literary review, "Revue des Deux Mondes," which is owned by a millionaire-friend of Fillon. Similarly, for the little work she appears to have done at the publication, she earned some 100,000 euros ($107,000).
This kind of behavior poisons the political well and plays into the hands of those that accuse politicians of being part of a fundamentally corrupt class. The scandal is therefore a golden opportunity for the National Front ahead of this spring's presidential election. If Fillon fails to immediately deliver a compelling and convincing counterargument, he will not only have damaged his party, but rather, and above all, the entire country.