In late August of 2016, François Fillon, the presidential candidate for the Republican Party in France, told a crowd gathered amidst red-white-and-blue balloons that they should not feel ashamed of France’s Catholic roots.
“You just heard the bells ringing,” said Fillon referring to the nearby Abbey of Solesmes where he had celebrated the Feast of the Assumption.
“A thousand years of history! How can you not feel the force, the power, the depth of this past that forged us, that gives us the keys to our future?”
An outspoken Catholic and former French Prime Minister, Fillon is a singularity in the European political mosaic. By connecting to French conservatives and putting a stress on limiting migration, he won the republican presidential primaries and soon became a favorite to win the race.
But the secret to Fillon’s success was the ‘resurrection’ of the dormant Catholic vote in France. Eighty-three percent of practicing Catholics voted for Fillon, as did 68 percent of non-practicing Catholics, according to Pollster OpinionWay.
Remarkably, it happened in the country that wishes to ban pro-life commercials and also legalized same-sex marriage and adoption. The French, who threw a hissy fit when a Catholic priest was appointed president of a state-run university, were one step away from electing their first openly Catholic president.
‘Were’ being the key word.
An exposé in Le Canard Enchainé, an investigative French newspaper, accused the presidential hopeful of hiring his wife and two children as staff members to perform fake jobs that allegedly earned them nearly $1 million.
After the news broke, Fillon’s approval rating dropped drastically. His entire image depended on his moral integrity. While debating during the primaries against former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon said while standing on his soapbox: “It is pointless to speak of authority if you yourself are not irreproachable.”
Fillon insisted during his campaign that once elected, he would reduce government spending and, ironically, cut over-inflated public-sector jobs.
His insistence on being an every-day upstanding man is what caused so many to feel disillusioned following the revelations. “He led his whole campaign saying ‘I have nothing to be reproached for. I’m not like the others,'” Gerard Fretilliere, a left-wing city councilman, told AP. “And then, boom, we discover that he was hiding things. And for him, that’s devastating.”
There are still those who defend him. After all, nepotism is not only a socially accepted practice in Europe but often legal. At least 20 percent of MPs in France hire family members, according to a 2014 study by the French investigative website Mediapart.
The legal issue is how much Penelope, Fillon’s Welsh wife, was paid and whether she did any work to earn that money.
According to French law, there can be no more than five National Assembly staff members who are to be paid with a monthly budget slightly over $10,000. According to Le Canard Enchaîné, Penelope was paid more than $7,000 a month for the 14 years she worked for Fillon.
There is also little proof that Penelope actually did any work as a parliamentary aid. She never signed a work contract, and never had a parliamentary identification badge or email address.
Most damming of all is her statement during a 2007 interview with the Telegraph: “I have never been actually his assistant or anything like that. I don’t deal with his communication.”
Even though an investigation was launched following what is now being called “Penelopegate,” there will probably be no legal repercussion for the Fillons.
According to Fillon’s lawyer, “even if there had been a violation, it would be statute-barred,” since the allegations date back to the 1990’s.
The issue is a moral one: can the French Catholics forgive their knight in shining armor, even if he is flawed? More importantly: can they do so before the election takes place on April 23 and May 7?
Supporters who have remained loyal to Fillon cry fowl.
“I don’t understand how it’s possible to pursue someone this way,” Ghislaine Vincent, 82, told AP. “They’re jumping on him like vicious animals.”
For some it raised suspicions that the judiciary launched the inquiry into Fillon’s affairs the very same day that the article was published. Fillon’s supporters claim it to be a conspiracy and distributed millions of flyers reading, “Stop the manhunt!”
Fillon himself showed no signs of backing down. During a press conference on January 6 he admitted that employing his wife “was a mistake,” but was resolute in continuing his campaign to the Élysée Palace.
“I will defend her, I love her, I will protect her and I tell all those who would try to attack her that they will find me on their path,” Fillon told TF1 broadcaster. The presidential hopeful also asked why this story came out only months before the elections, “obviously, this is to try (to) take me down as a presidential candidate,” he added.
Despite his determination, Fillon’s chances are slim. The majority of voters (68 percent) want Fillon to step back as candidate, a poll by Le Journal du Dimanche found.
“Penelopegate” is good news for Fillon’s opponents, who only weeks ago were being pounded by the Catholic up-start. The scandal was a godsend for centrist Emmanuel Macron, former economy minister under president François Hollande, running as an independent and never having held elected office. For Marine Le Pen, leader of the alt-right movement Front National, it was nothing short of a miracle that propelled her on top of the polls.
“We must avoid the catastrophe,” said Bunel, a die-hard conservative to AP. “The world won’t collapse if it’s Macron, or even a leftist.”
Financial analysts and stockbrokers fear a Le Pen win. Her xenophobic rhetoric and anti-EU sentiment risk jostling the geopolitical chessboard, already precarious after the Brexit/Trump double whammy.
Meanwhile the French Republican Party is facing a dilemma: all bets were on Fillon, and if he were forced to resign, the party would be left without a horse in the race.
If Fillon is unable to turn things around, some observers believe he will not only cripple his party but might also halt France’s Catholic renaissance.
According to the polling firm IFOP, nearly 60 percent of the French electorate identifies as Catholic. The increasing attacks by Muslim extremists, the legalization of gay marriage and disregard for pro-life positions had slapped French Catholics out of their torpor.
Fillon’s voice rang the bells of their heritage, and shook them back into political life. One can only wonder if Fillon’s fall will also be the swan song of a “Catholic moment” in France.