Crowded field jostles for position as mud flies in French presidential race

With the Socialist candidate finally chosen this weekend, can either Manuel Valls or Benoit Hamon make a difference in the packed French presidential election race?

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Crowded field jostles for position as mud flies in French presidential race

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With just a little more than three months to go the French presidential election campaign is in full swing and the right’s frontrunner François Fillon had appeared confident at the controls.

But he took a bashing on Wednesday morning when the respected political satire rag Le Canard Enchainee revealed suspicions Fillon may have paid his wife rather a lot of money to work for him. Entirely legal of course, but only if she actually put in the hours. Still, half a million euros for eight years hard graft appears richly rewarded for a parliamentary aide.

“I see the stink bombs have started to fly. I’m not going to comment because there’s nothing to say. I simply want to say that I’m shocked by the contempt and misogeny that is on display in this article. I suppose that my wife doesn’t have the right to work?” was his immediate reaction.

If this proves to have been a “dummy” job and Welsh-born Penelope did not roll her sleeves up and pitch in with the interns, then French laws come down hard. It is corruption and the theft of public money. Such “dummy” jobs have often been the subject of political scandal in the past. An inquiry is underway.

The leading leftwing party, the Socialists, have little to cheer about. An interloper cuckoo in President Hollande’s nest, former minister Emmanuel Macron, has stolen their centre ground running as an independent. He’s just visited Lebanon to buff up his foreign policy credentials. His “En Marche” party is brand new out of the box and is hurting the traditional right, too.

There are six main declared candidates so far likely to get enough sponsorship signatures, 500, from France’s 32,000 Mayors.

From Jean Luc Melanchon on the hard left to Marine Le Pen on the far right, and the Greens, Macron, centre-left and right in the middle. Only two can make it to the knock-out round.

The governing Socialists have been in disarray but their leadership is fresh. A field of seven pretenders was whittled down to two, but in a poorly-supported vote where there was little enthusiasm and an air of premature defeat seemed to hang in the air. Some fear the PS sliding back to its pre-Mitterrand days of 20% or less of the popular vote.

Manuel Valls and Benoit Hamon have mirrored the division within the party, two different visions of a possible future. Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls has pitched as the pragmatic realist while Benoit Hamon dares to dream. Valls shot down his idea of a universal revenue pretty quickly.

“When you base your whole campaign on this idea you are selling a sandcastle, an illusion, and people will end up disillusioned,” he scoffed.

“People are saying Benoit Hamon is the end of work candidate, which is absurd. What’s lazy is in not having the will to change the rules of the game,” retorts Hamon.

Hamon is swimming against a mighty tide, enthusiastically European, deeply social rather than economic, but also untainted by the perceived failure of five years of Francois Hollande, whose government he quit.

Valls has to balance between his successes in office and distancing himself from the Fifth Republic’s most unpopular leader.