In my second post about this year’s French presidential election, I thought I’d talk about the leading conservative candidate, François Fillon. Fillon was France’s prime minister, under Nicolas Sarkozy, from 2007 to 2012. When he won the Republican primary in November, polls and pundits predicted that he would handily become the next president of France. After all, conservatives were riding a wave of frustration with sitting socialist president, François Hollande, whose approval rating was only 4%.
In January, however, scandal shook Fillon’s candidacy when a leading paper revealed that Fillon, a 30-year member of parliament, had used public funds to pay his wife and children nearly $1 million. In France, members of parliament receive a discretionary budget to use as they see fit. There apparently isn’t a lot of oversight or transparency concerning how the money is spent. At issue in Fillon’s case, is not whether or not it was ethical for him to hire family members. Instead, people are questioning the value of the services performed, and trying to determine if Fillon’s wife and children actually earned their pay.
While Fillon’s detractors express their outrage, his supporters point out that it is common practice for parliamentarians to hire spouses and other relatives. The French website Mediapart reported that 115 out of 577 MPs currently do just that. Nevertheless, in an era where populism and contempt for Europe’s political class are boiling over, the charges of nepotism are clearly damaging Fillon’s campaign. He is no longer expected to be the next president of France. Many even doubt that he can make it to the second round of voting.
As scandals go, I find this one to be pretty tame. What’s more interesting are the ways that French editorialists and cartoonists depict it. I’ve selected some of my favorite examples of satirical coverage. Each one illustrates the French tradition of relating current events to historically significant incidents and/or popular figures.
Political scandals end in “gate”
Ever since the Watergate scandal, under U.S. president Richard Nixon, the French have taken to referring to political scandals with the suffix “gate”. In Fillon’s case, many papers and news shows have used the term “Penelopegate”, a reference to Fillon’s Welsh wife Penelope. Fillon naturally rejects all criticism, saying that Penelope acted as his parliamentary assistant. The work that he claims she performed includes proof-reading his speeches and meeting people on his behalf. Troubling, however, are reports that Madame Fillon never had a parliamentary pass or a work email. And then there are Penelope’s own words from a 2007 interview, “I’ve never been his assistant or anything of that kind…”
Why all the ducks?
Since the scandal broke, many political cartoons that feature Fillon depict him being accosted by ducks. If you’re wondering about the joke here, it might help to know that the newspaper that broke the story is called Le Canard Enchainé (literally the chained up duck). You may recognize the word, canard, as “duck” but it is also slang for “newspaper”. The weekly journal was founded during WWI, in part to combat military censorship. While Le Canard publishes satirical articles and cartoons, it does not advance any particular ideology. It seems to criticize all political parties without preference, focusing on scandals. Despite its often lighthearted and lampooning nature, many consider Le Canard’s investigative reporting to be well-sourced and frequently spot on.
Don’t forget the literary references
The French are rightfully proud of their cultural past. When in France, you run into the names of notable French figures everywhere: artists, authors, philosophers, musicians, architects, scientists, etc. The French have an admirable way of keeping their history alive and making it relevant. If you are a public figure, it’s likely that you will be compared with some historical character, either fictive or real, at least once during your career. The analogy may be flattering or contemptuous. In the case of Fillon, more than one publication has compared him to Molière’s famous hypocrite, Tartuffe. The weekly news magazine L’Obs (abbreviation for the observer), mocked up a photo of Fillon, complete with 17th-century wig, to grace the cover of a February issue.
France’s favorite slacker
One of France’s most loved comic strip characters is Gaston Lagaffe. Created by André Franquin in the 1950s, Gaston remains ever popular today. Why no one has translated this strip into English is a mystery to me. The gag-a-day comic features a young beatnik who continually exasperates the editor of the paper where he works. Lazy and disinterested, Gaston only seems to apply himself when inventing some sort of contraption that will help him avoid his job. Despite his continued delinquency, Gaston’s boss keeps him on, eternally catching him napping or engaging in a scientific undertaking that risks blowing up the office. Given the French penchant for political humor, it didn’t take long for someone to draw a parallel between the questionable efforts of Fillon’s family members and those of Gaston Lagaffe.
Not all publicity is good publicity
With round one of the election less than 4 weeks away, last week marked the first live presidential debate. The leading 5 candidates, out of a field of 11, answered questions for more than 3 hours. Fillon’s position as the Republican party nominee afforded him a place under the spotlights. However, a leading national poll taken shortly after the rhetoric-filled contest, has the candidate, once assumed to be the hands-down favorite, in fourth place.