France's politically wounded pile up, leaving Macron and Le Pen leading presidential race

In France, political corpses lie strewn on the ground, and the real battle for the presidency hasn't even begun. François Fillon is the latest victim.

Scandal overtakes front-runner and former prime minister François Fillon, now a 'dead man walking'

François Fillon, the former conservative French prime minister who just a month ago was the odds-on favourite to become the next French president, now is stained by scandal. (Francois Nascimbeni/AFP/Getty Images)

In France, political corpses lie strewn on the ground, and the real battle for the presidency hasn't even begun.

The French president, François Hollande, was knifed in the back —  metaphorically — by his prime minister Manuel Valls and dropped out of the 2017  presidential race before it began.

Valls was dubbed a modern-day Brutus (leader of the Roman cabal that stabbed Julius Caesar to death) and was duly slaughtered by socialist voters in the party primary, losing to Benoit Hamon, a man who was briefly the French education minister.

To the politically dead we must now add a "dead man walking" — François Fillon, the former conservative French prime minister who just a month ago was the odds-on favourite to become the next French president.

I've never actually been (François's) assistant or anything like that.- Penelope Fillon

To get to that pinnacle, he defeated in a party primary Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, and Alain Juppé, a former prime minister. More political corpses.

But Fillon is now deeply embroiled in what the French call, rather unoriginally, "Penelopegate."

Penelope is his wife. She is British, born and brought up in Wales. She was also his parliamentary assistant, or rather she was paid, and paid well over the average, as his parliamentary assistant for years.

The trouble is, nobody can remember her doing any work, not even Penelope herself.

French television on Feb. 2 ran a video interview she did with a British newspaper in 2007 when she was supposed to be assisting her husband.

"I've never actually been (François's) assistant or anything like that," she said.

Penelope Fillon was listed as a parliamentary aide to her husband Francois while he was an MP. She admitted never having been to his office. (Etienne Laurent/EPA)

Five million people tuned in to watch.

Over the years Penelope was paid more than $1 million for her help. As a doting father, Fillon also employed his two children, then students, to help them launch their careers as lawyers.

The headlines just keep on coming. The police have opened a file on possible embezzlement of state funds. The cops have interviewed the Fillons. Then they raided Fillon's parliamentary offices.

Fillon calls it a political plot or rather "an institutional coup d'état" aimed at him, one orchestrated by the socialist government. He doesn't deny the facts but says the "plot" has no precedent in France since the Second World War.

To add to his sense of outrage, Fillon's poll numbers are sinking fast, while two other presidential candidates are rising in the polls despite financial controversies of their own.

Marine Le Pen has just been ordered to pay back more than $400,000 by the European parliament where she is a member.

France's far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen has called young demonstrators 'scum.' (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)

In an echo of Fillon, the parliamentary authorities say she employed an assistant only to pocket her salary and use it to fund her party activities in France.

Le Pen calls the order "persecution" and says neither she nor her National Front party will pay the money back. So her European parliament pay and expenses will be docked.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, a former socialist minister who quit to form his own movement, En Marche, is also fending off embarrassing charges. He's accused of using more than $150,000 of finance ministry expense money to set up his movement.

Not true, Macron says. He was spending it legitimately, heroically wining and dining bankers, bosses and entrepreneurs in his capacity as minister of the budget.

As things stand, Le Pen and Macron may be the two candidates in the second and decisive round of the presidential election in May. Somehow their financial entanglements haven't hurt them, perhaps in part because they portray themselves as "outsiders" attacking the system.

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron appears to be one of two immediate beneficiaries of the latest French scandal. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

And unlike Fillon, they're not accused of pocketing the money personally but of using it for their political projects.

That will be cold comfort to Fillon, as will the realization that, far from being unprecedented, the scandal he is caught up in is just one of many stretching back more than 40 years.

Another ex-prime minister, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, was leading the polls in the presidential election in 1974 when a newspaper revealed he had paid no taxes, legally, for several years.

Former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, accepted a gift of diamonds from Jean-Bedel Bokassa, self-styled emperor of the Central African Republic. Giscard lost the presidential election. ((Associated Press))

Decades later, Donald Trump would easily get away with it in the U.S., but Chaban-Delmas sank quickly and lost.

A few years later, a sitting president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, was mortally wounded politically when it was revealed that he'd accepted a gift of diamonds from Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the bloodthirsty, self-styled emperor of the Central African Republic. Giscard d'Estaing lost the presidential election.

There were other scandals involved presidents Jacques Chirac (hundreds of thousands in cash in suitcases used for holiday trips) and Nicolas Sarkozy (a sweetheart deal on a huge apartment in a Paris suburb) which they somehow survived.

A thread running through all of them is that they exploded during the presidential campaigns, and the political bombs were the work of Le Canard Enchaîné, the muckraking weekly that  tossed the grenade that's left Fillon so politically wounded.

Can you imagine General De Gaulleas the object of a criminal investigation?- François Fillon

Another thread is the sense of entitlement of the political class. The state's money was theirs to do as they wished. Until 15 years ago ministers received millions of dollars a year in cash from the prime minister. They then distributed the money in envelopes to themselves and their assistants. This often represented half their income, undeclared and untaxed.

Even after the "envelopes" were abolished, some politicians, like Fillon, used their office expense money as a family perk. It's estimated that at least one-fifth of French MPs employ their own family members, and other MPs employ family members of their colleagues.

Then there is the handful of politicians, like former minister of the interior Claude Guéant, who simply carried on as if the old system still existed.

A French appeal court in January upheld a conviction against Guéant for awarding himself an illegal "envelope" of almost $300,000. He was given a one-year prison term.

When François Fillon was running triumphantly in the conservative primary, one of his withering lines was: "Can you imagine General De Gaulle (the founder of the Fifth French Republic) as the object of a criminal investigation?"

Both his opponents, Sarkozy and Juppé, had to run that gauntlet.

Now it's Fillon's turn.