France's Fillon sinking, Macron emerges with programme
By Eric Maurice
Thursday (2 March) was a perfect illustration of the unusual, dramatic and undecided campaign for the French presidential election.
The new favourite, independent Emmanuel Macron, who has been accused of being a shallow and inexperienced politician with no concrete ideas, presented his long-awaited political programme in which he said he wants to "transform" France to "end mass unemployment" and "give everyone a place in society".
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But all eyes were on a previous favourite, center-right candidate Francois Fillon, who held a meeting to claim his "will to vanquish", a day after he announced he was going to be charged for embezzlement, hours after his home was searched by the police and amid many defections in his campaign team.
Meanwhile, the candidate who leads the polls for the first round but not for the run-off, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, was stripped of her parliamentary immunity by the European Parliament in a move than is unlikely to impact her image to her voters.
Le Pen is being investigated in France after tweeting pictures of Islamic State atrocities in 2015. The MEPs' vote on immunity applies only to that case and not to another investigation on alleged fake job contracts in the European Parliament.
Le Pen is suspected of having signed contracts to have her cabinet chief and her bodyguard paid as EU parliament assistants without them working in the parliament. Her cabinet chief was charged last week.
She said that the case was a "political cabal" and has refused to meet French judges before the French parliament elections in June.
Despite the fraud, allegedly costing more than €300,000 to the European taxpayer, she has recently increased her lead in the first round polls, paradoxically mainly because of Fillon's own fake jobs accusation.
Fillon, a former prime minister who campaigned on honesty and truth to win his party's primary election, employed his wife and two of his children as parliamentary assistants, although they reportedly did little work.
Fillon will appear in court on 15 March likely to be charged with embezzlement. Despite saying in January that being charged would be the only thing that could prevent him from being a candidate, he said on Wednesday that he would not withdraw.
"You have a fighter before you," he told a crowd of supporters in Nimes, southern France, on Thursday evening.
He said that he was a victim of "incommensurate attacks" but that he had "no intention of giving in".
But Fillon's campaign seems to be getting out of control.
On Wednesday, influent members from his Republicans party called on him to renounce. Members of his campaign team, including the campaign treasurer, have left.
The website of the left-wing Liberation daily even set up a "counter of Fillon leavers", which on Friday morning included 57 mayors, MPs or senators.
French media have reported that Alain Juppe, another former prime minister who lost to Fillon in the primary, was willing to step in to replace a weakened Fillon, but that former president Nicolas Sarkozy was blocking the move.
Fillon said on Wednesday that the case was a "political assassination" and even spoke of an "institutional coup" to prevent him from being president.
A meeting will take place in Paris on Sunday, which the Fillon campaign presents as a support meeting but which has been branded by right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles as a "protest against red judges".
"Red judges" was an expression used by Italy's Silvio Berlusconi to discredit corruption probes against him in the 1990s and 2000s.
For months, the question had not been who would qualify for the second round, but who would face Le Pen, with the assumption that whoever would be her opponent would become the new president.
With Fillon embroiled in scandals and the Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, lagging in the polls with a programme that many consider as too left-wing, the last man standing against Le Pen could be Macron.
Macron, a 39-year old former banker and economy minister under Socialist president Francois Hollande, said on Thursday that he wanted to "take France into the 21st century" with a programme he says is neither right or left.
As the most pro-EU candidate for the election, he wants to reform the French economy to make it closer to Germany's, and reduce the deficits as required by the EU.
He said he would extend unemployment insurance to everyone and lower workers social contributions while making it easier to increase working hours in companies and harmonising private and public pension systems.
He also said he would tax big technology companies like Google or Facebook and renegotiate the EU-US Privacy Shield accord on the protection of personal data.
To address the current climate of scandals and defiance towards politicians, he said he would reduce the number of MPs, prevent them from employing family members and abolish their special pension system.