Why Is France So Corrupt?

France’s lax ethical standards are catching up with Francois Fillon — and boosting Marine Le Pen's campaign for president.


Last week, France’s Les Républicains had an American Republican moment — namely, they relived Richard Nixon’s televised 1952 Checkers speech. Just as the U.S. vice presidential candidate responded to charges that he and his family had dipped into a political campaign fund, so too did François Fillon, the French Républicains’ presidential candidate, appear on television to defend himself against similar charges.

Nixon’s gamble paid off. His remark that his wife, Pat, wore a “respectable Republican cloth coat” instead of mink won over enough Republican voters to salvage his place on Dwight Eisenhower’s ticket. Whether Fillon’s will do the same remains to be seen. He faces greater odds. As the satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné revealed last Wednesday, Fillon had funneled enough money — about $540,000 — from his taxpayer-funded parliamentary account into his wife’s private bank account for her to buy plenty of fur, should she so choose. One week later, the news got worse: turns out, according to Canard, the figure was closer to $900,000.

No one in France disputes Fillon’s right to have paid his wife as an “assistant” over the course of eight years. While nepotism laws in America prohibit such practices — unless you are president — not so in France. More than one-fifth of French parliamentary representatives — 115 of 577 — employ one or more family members as “assistants.” Yet, while it is not illegal for political officeholders in France to hire family members, it is illegal to create so-called emplois fictifs, or make-believe jobs where you pay relatives for work they have not, are not, and never intend to do. Herein lies the rub with the Fillons. Until the Canard’s scoop, there was no reason to believe that the Welsh-born Penelope Fillon devoted her life to anything other than her family of five (unless you count the five horses stabled near the family’s 12th-century chateau). Mme Fillon has previously conceded that she had extra time on her hands. In 2007, she told an interviewer with The Telegraph that she had just enrolled in a Shakespeare class: “I realized that my children have only known me as just a mother but I did a French degree, I qualified as a lawyer and I thought ‘Look here, I’m not that stupid.’ This will get me working and thinking again.”

During his televised interview, Fillon insisted that his wife’s work was real: Penelope Fillon reviewed his speeches, met with associates, gathered and collated news stories, and the like. And yet not only was she never seen in the halls of the National Assembly, even the residents of Sablé-sur-Sarthe (the village that is home to chateau Fillon ) were astonished to learn she was her husband’s assistant. As one local official told a journalist, “The separation was always clear: He took care of politics, she took care of the family.”

And if the goal of appearing on television was to contain the damage, it does not appear to have worked: Fillon did not help his cause by revealing in the same interview that, while a senator, he had also paid two of his children to handle specific cases for him because of “their particular competence as lawyers.” (The problem, as several newspapers quickly pointed out, is that neither child was a lawyer yet; the latest Canard story reports that they were paid approximately $90,000 for their work.) Over the weekend, fresh news broke out that between 2005 and 2007, Fillon had written himself seven checks totaling about $28,000 from an account earmarked for paying assistants; then came the new revelations that his wife’s pay had been even more than first thought.

“Penelope-gate” — as the affair is now inevitably called — threatens to tarnish, even torpedo, Fillon’s chances of reaching the Élysée. The two pillars of Fillon’s candidacy have been the economic imperative of scaling back the state’s social protections, and the political imperative of being untouched by scandal. The two are interconnected; the former relies on the latter. That Penelope Fillon drew an exorbitant salary for reading her husband’s speeches before saddling up for a morning canter will not go down well with an electorate being asked to make financial sacrifices. At the same time, Fillon has always emphasized that his hands, unlike those of his fellow Gaullist contenders, were clean. During his primary debate with Alain Juppé, who was found guilty in 2004 of creating phony jobs while serving under Jacques Chirac, Fillon announced: “One cannot lead France if one is not irreproachable.” Fillon also blasted his rival Nicolas Sarkozy’s many entanglements over alleged campaign finance shenanigans by evoking the moral rectitude of the national conservative patriarch Charles de Gaulle: “Who could imagine the Général ever being taken in for a police questioning?” Now that finance inspectors have begun a preliminary investigation into Fillon’s case, the General seems more alone than ever.

France is not a particularly corrupt country, in global terms, but in the West it is something of an outlier. According to Transparency International’s 2016 “corruption perception” index, France ranked 23rd among 176 nations, just behind Estonia and just ahead of the Bahamas. It is not, of course, Somalia or Syria. But neither is it Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, or even the United States. In Western Europe, it outranks only Portugal, Italy, and Spain.

What may make matters worse is that French corruption is particularly high-profile: It doesn’t come in the form of cops asking for petty bribes, or companies buying off bureaucrats. Rather, thanks to the peculiarly French principle of a republican monarchy, French corruption involves vast sums and takes place at the highest levels of government. Created by De Gaulle in 1958, the Fifth Republic hands vast power and prestige to the presidency. The president, in principle, is not answerable to Parliament; the president, in essence, reigns and his ministers merely rule. While De Gaulle also endowed the office with his personal imperiousness and incorruptibility, his descendants have held tight to the former while mostly trashing the latter. From the late 1970s, when Central African Republic Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa showered Valéry Giscard d’Estaing with diamonds, through the 1980s, when Chirac, while mayor of Paris, embezzled public funds for his presidential campaign, to Sarkozy and the kaleidoscope of court cases confronting him, ranging from influence peddling to accepting $54 million in campaign financing from former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, the French presidency has been consistently mired in scandals worthy of the Bourbons. (François Hollande, for all his fecklessness, has — to give credit where it’s due — kept his hands relatively clean during his time in office; his scandals have been of the personal sort.)

This relentless drip of scandals both dampens public attitudes toward the mainstream parties — a Transparency International poll taken late last year revealed that three-quarters of the French believe that parliamentary deputies and government ministers are corrupt — and continues to raise the boat of the far-right National Front (FN). Marine Le Pen’s party has its own instances of financial misbehavior: The European Union had determined that the FN defrauded the European Parliament budget of more than $324,000, which it used to illicitly pay FN staffers. Perhaps because the victim was Brussels, however, and because Le Pen was not enriching herself personally, the scandal has had little traction in France; this week, while Fillon was busy battling for his political life, Le Pen was scoffing at the notion that she might return the funds. More to the point, it hasn’t stopped Le Pen from positioning herself as the only candidate able to drain the French swamp. Given the steady 25 to 26 percent support her party attracts in polls, a sizable group, it seems, believes her.

The reluctance of French governments to address the problem of corruption is well known. In 2014, a European Union report rapped France’s knuckles for its faulty firewalls in campaign financing, its judiciary’s relative lack of independence, and the absence of political willpower to tackle a culture of corruption. Until recently, moreover, the foot-dragging of politicians over these issues has not unduly bothered French voters. As Jean-Christophe Picard of the watchdog group Anticor notes, through the 1980s and 1990s the public mostly tolerated such wheeling and dealing. “In France, there is the idea that defrauding and wasting public money is not too serious a problem as long as there are no direct victims,” he said in a recent interview with the weekly French magazine L’Obs.

There have been some recent attempts to remedy the problem: Last year, the country enacted the Sapin II Law, which, for the first time, creates an anti-corruption agency, requires members of Parliament to render public the names of everyone listed on their official payrolls, and affords fuller legal protection to lanceurs d’alerte, the rather awkward French term for whistleblowers. The law has been hailed as an important step by transparency advocacy groups, but much of the law is aimed at targets lower down than the Élysée.

It is still too early to tell if the recent revelations will bar Fillon from the presidency, but it is looking increasingly likely. He has already vowed that he will end his campaign if formal charges are brought against him; on Tuesday, police were spotted at his parliamentary office looking for evidence. Even if the courts do not act before this spring’s election, Fillon’s reputation has already taken a serious hit. In an Odoxa poll taken after the Canard’s scoop, 61 percent of respondents had a bad opinion of Fillon, while just 38 percent thought favorably of him — a 4 percent drop since Jan. 8. An even more recent poll, conducted by Elabeshows that Fillon is now in danger of not even making it past the first round of France’s two-stage election process. One of the beneficiaries of his decline will be Le Pen, who even before Penelope-gate had overtaken Fillon in a Le Monde poll; another may be Emmanuel Macron, the center-left independent whose campaign continues to gain momentum. French politics is looking more unpredictable than ever, and much can still happen between now and the first round of the election, which is slated for late April. But one thing does seem clear: With Penelope-gate, a long French tradition looks set to continue.

Photo credit: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images

Correction: Feb. 8, 2017: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Jean-François Picard. His name is Jean-Christophe Picard. 


Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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