Fillon catches up in French poll as he vows revenge on enemies

Fillon catches up in French poll as he vows revenge on enemies

had been the front-runner to become France’s next president until he was put under investigation in January

Paris: French presidential candidate Francois Fillon made up some ground in the first poll taken since Tuesday night’s television debate as he promised to go after those he holds responsible for legal woes that have roiled his campaign.

Support for the Republican nominee rose one percentage point to 19 per cent in Thursday’s weekly Elabe poll of first-round voting intentions, while lower support for Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen brought him closer to a slot in the May 7 runoff than at any time since mid-February.

Fillon took aim at Le Pen and Macron on France Inter radio Thursday, though he saved his most searing attacks for those he says have conspired with prosecutors to have him charged with embezzlement in the middle of the election race.

“This affair was manufactured, and I will prove it: I have the dates, the days, the people who revealed the documents,” Fillon said. “When the moment comes, I will unmask them. It’s true there have been days when I’ve slept badly. But I assure you that those who created this affair won’t sleep well either.”

Fillon had been the front-runner to become France’s next president until he was put under investigation in January after a newspaper revealed that family members hired as his parliamentary aides may not have done any actual work. The affair sent him skidding in the polls ahead of the first round of voting on April 23. In half a century of direct presidential elections, his centre-right movement has never been eliminated before the runoff.

Macron and Le Pen were both at 23.5 per cent in the Elabe poll of 995 voters conducted April 5, 4.5 points ahead of Fillon. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon jumped two points to 17 per cent, and Socialist Benoit Hamon, another establishment candidate being shunned by voters, slipped one point to 9 per cent.

The poll suggests that both Fillon and Macron would defeat Le Pen in the second round, though Macron would win by 24 percentage points and Fillon by 14.

“Francois Fillon is regaining traction among centre-right voters by focusing his campaign on his ambitious reform program and dismissing Macron as a front for the outgoing administration,” Charles Lichfield, a political analyst at Eurasia Group in London, said in a research note.

In Tuesday’s debate, Fillon reacted angrily when other candidates mentioned his legal woes. In the radio interview, he repeated that he believes President Francois Hollande is behind the criminal probe. Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll responded on France Info that Fillon’s comments were “defamatory” and that the justice system is independent.

Fillon also returned to calling for closer ties with Russia and warned against getting militarily involved in Syria, even after this week’s apparent use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Assad.

“I refuse to go toward war,” he said. “Confrontation with Russia makes no sense, I want us to negotiate. The solution is to talk with the Russians, the Iranians, and the Turks to get rid of Bashar Assad.”

He also said he favours a Russian-European security conference that could even discuss changing some borders. Asked about Russia’s annexation of the Russian-speaking Ukrainian region of Crimea, he said “I believe in the right of people to choose for themselves.”

Fillon called for an end to European sanctions aimed at pressuring Russia to stop interfering in Ukraine. “I will do everything to lift the sanctions against Russia, which have achieved nothing except to ruin French farmers,” he told France Inter.

Policy toward Russia has been one of the most divisive issues in the French elections, with Fillon, Le Pen, and Melenchon calling for closer ties, and Macron and Hamon arguing for sticking with other European Union nations to keep pressure on Putin. Fillon plans to give a speech last Thursday on his stance toward the EU.

— Bloomberg