Who could imagine that General Charles de Gaulle, a towering figure of modern French history and father of the fifth republic dating from 1958, would ever have faced criminal charges?
It was a powerful question that combined respect for France’s revered past president, contempt for the last but one president and the self-proclaimed rectitude of the speaker, Francois Fillon, who hopes to follow in their footsteps in May. And how Mr Fillon’s words, and a more recent statement that he would not stand for the office if accused as Gen de Gaulle could never have been, have come to haunt him.
Mr Fillon, the centre-right, indeed Gaullist candidate in the forthcoming French presidential election, reported yesterday to investigating judges, and was informed that he was mise en examen, the closest equivalent under French law to being charged. He is accused of misusing public funds in relation to the lucrative but allegedly fictitious employment of his British wife, Penelope, as a parliamentary assistant.
Mrs Fillon must also appear before the judges this week and has been warned to expect the same outcome.
If it were not disconcerting enough to have a would-be head of state in such trouble, Mr Fillon also refuses to honour that pledge, made in January, that he would stand down if accused of criminal acts. Hundreds of colleagues have deserted and the opinion polls suggest his prospects have been severely wounded.
He justifies his stance by presenting himself as the victim of an attempted political assassination in which the timing of judicial procedures has been manipulated to inflict the most damage. This is widely seen as wriggling.
Yet in one disturbing respect, it is easy to see why he might feel aggrieved. For France has a long and murky history of questionable or downright unlawful conduct by senior political figures. It is almost as if the candidate is asking why he alone should be carrying the can.
But times have changed, and he is not alone. The target of his remark about de Gaulle was Nicolas Sarkozy, president from 2007 and 2012, who opposed him in last year’s primaries run by their party, Les Republicains. Amid a string of entanglements with the law, Mr Sarkozy has been ordered to stand trial accused of illegally financing his 2012 campaign.
The far-right Marine Le Pen could also face prosecution in any of four ongoing investigations. These, too, cover dubious employment, in this case party officials paid for imaginary European parliamentary functions, as well as the funding of past elections and her own tax declarations. She is further under investigation over the publication of violent ISIL images when challenging claims that her party was comparable to the terror group.
Then consider the other defeated 2017 front-runner for Les Republicains, Alain Juppe, and for that matter Jacques Chirac, who preceded Mr Sarkozy as president. Both received suspended prison terms for their parts in another bogus jobs scandal.
At least the last socialist president, Francois Mitterand, was dead before details surfaced of a campaign of illegal phonetapping. For all his weaknesses, the current but outgoing socialist president Francois Hollande seems an essentially decent politician. Yet one man who served in his government as junior budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, was recently jailed – along with his wife – for tax evasion.
The impact on public confidence has been profound. Only Ms Le Pen among the leading contenders has so far escaped fallout, her supporters seemingly persuaded by her complaints of victimisation. She remains ahead on first-round voting intentions, although either Mr Fillon or the untried centrist Emmanuel Macron, just behind in most polls so far untarnished by scandal, would expect to pick up most votes in a run-off. For many in France, however, a revolution in public standards is overdue. A recent front cover of the news magazine Marianne listed 18 names of senior figures convicted, under formal investigation or awaiting trial.
“That’s enough,” exclaimed the magazine. “We want honest politicians.” Marianne published an 11-point charter for probity compiled by the independent anti-corruption organisation Transparency International France. So far, it said, only the socialist and Green candidates, now allied, had pledged support.
Francois and Penelope Fillon vehemently deny wrongdoing. They insist that while Mrs Fillon received €831,440 (Dh3.2m) of taxpayers’ money over 15 years, she did provide services. They say she helped to deal with his mail, prepared him for engagements, proofread speeches and supplied him with a regular press review.
Of payments totalling €83,725 for the legal services of two of their five children, neither then practising, they again protest the family’s innocence.
If any of these matters ends up in the courts, the verdicts seem likely to rest on whether the duties as described were actually performed and justified the payments made. Mrs Fillon herself admitted that when she decided to stop working for her husband in 2013, there was an element of recognition that even lawful employment of family members was “no longer accepted”.
“But she did nothing,” Mr Fillon is shown, in one of many irreverent cartoons inspired by the affair, pleading in court on her behalf as she trembles in the background. “Exactly so,” retorts the judge.
Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National