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François Fillon: Felled by his wife’s “fictional” job (Rama CC BY-SA 2.0 FR)

Conservatives in France rejoiced at the victory of François Fillon, Nicolas Sarkozy’s former prime minister, when he won the primaries of the French conservative party Les Républicains. Fillon seemed to be a true conservative, by which I mean someone attached to liberty and authority, not a reincarnation of Napoleon or a fake progressive, as French conservative politicians usually are. However, the recent revelations about him hiring his wife Penelope and his children as political advisers a few years ago when he was an MP, while she herself denied she worked for her husband, changed the game.

The courts will have to decide if Penelope Fillon’s job was “fictional” — that is, if she received money when she wasn’t really working, as Le Canard Enchaîné, the satirical magazine which broke the news, put it. But the anger of voters today is not about the legality of the job but its morality. Of course, in a family business you can hire members of your family. But it is your business and you will bear the consequences of this choice. In French politics, however, you can hire someone of your family thanks to someone else’s money — the taxpayers’ — without really suffering the consequences of a bad choice. MPs hiring their spouses as political advisers has not been uncommon in recent French political history; currently, more than 100 deputies out of 577 do so. But it seems that nowadays voters won’t stand for it any more, especially when there is no transparency and the salary of the spouse is seen as too high. How strange, Fillon may be thinking, everyone in politics has always done this, and I’m the one who gets the blame!

What is even more fascinating in this case is that it encapsulates many French political vices. Lack of accountability and transparency are obvious candidates, but there are others. Take the independence of the press. How strange that the story is breaking now, when Fillon has been a politician for his whole professional life. Why hasn’t the press tried to investigate him previously? The French press is too close to politicians: it doesn’t want to annoy them when it needs them, but when one has become an easy target and is for that reason no longer useful, it acts without pity, like now. Another vice is the ambiguous relationship of politicians with business: Penelope Fillon was also employed as a literary adviser by the Revue des Deux Mondes, a journal owned by a powerful businessman, Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.

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