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No, the fall of François Fillon doesn’t mean Marine Le Pen will win

It is Emmanuel Macron who has the most to gain. 

It has been a crazy week for politics in France, too. No immigration ban resulting in global protests or firing of an attorney general – but the impressive fall from grace of François Fillon, the centre-right Républicain presidential candidate whom everyone thought was the best man to defeat Le Pen.

The weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné revealed last week that Fillon’s wife, Penelope, had been employed as a parliamentary assistant between 2005 and 2007, a job for which no trace could be found and for which she has been paid €830,000. Further media investigation found that Fillon had also paid his children, then still students, about €84,000 over two years to work as his assistants. Penelope is also suspected to have been paid €100,000 for a literary consultant gig at a magazine owned by a friend of her husband. François Fillon himself is suspected of embezzlement of funds when he was senator, and Mediapart reported this morning that he never declared his earnings as a senior advisor for the company Ricol Lasteyrie (worth €200,000 over four years). The police have searched Fillon’s parliamentary office and a preliminary inquiry has been opened.

As his campaign entered turbulence following the reports, Fillon has promised on national TV to withdraw from the race if the inquiry becomes formal – but even if the case is closed or if he chooses to run anyway, his campaign is ruined. 

This is good news for Marine Le Pen. The greater blow to Fillon, the better for Le Pen’s populist vote, but there is only so much she can gain from his troubles. Fillon’s programme is further to the right than any other Républicain candidate who ran against him in the primary, so theoretically, the percentage of votes Le Pen can grab from him is substantial. However, it is highly unlikely that the majority of the 20 per cent of votes that polls estimated would go to Fillon before Penelopegate will flow towards Le Pen, even in the case of his withdrawal followed by the candidacy of a more centrist right-winger.

Just like there’s voting Tory and there’s voting Ukip, there’s voting Républicain and there’s voting FN: Fillon voters are socially conservative, but it does not necessarily mean they want to leave the European Union or ditch the Euro for the Franc.

And in the improbable scenario of Fillon’s supporters switching to Le Pen en masse, she would still come short of a majority of 50 per cent of the vote in the first round. The “Republican front”, the French voting tradition of all political parties coming together behind the candidate opposing the far-right, would still prevail in the second. Though it may be with a thinner majority than the astonishing 80 per cent of the vote won by Jacques Chirac in 2002, when France missed a heartbeat  after Marine’s father Jean-Marie went to the second round.

Between Fillon’s scandal and the victory of left-winger Hamon in the Socialist primary, a boulevard is opening for a candidate indeed. It’s just not Le Pen: it’s liberal, picture-perfect centrist newcomer Macron, the one she seems to be more and more bound to face in the second round on May 7.

On Sunday night, right after Hamon’s victory but before most of the astonishing sums of money were revealed in the Penelopegate – so before Fillon’s ratings really starting to suffer – Emmanuel Macron was ranked third in the polls, behind Fillon.

A new poll, published today, runs two scenarios for the first round – with and without centrist Francois Bayrou, who has yet to announce his bid – and it puts Macron ahead of Fillon for the first time.

Photo: Elabe/Les Echos

Though this poll shows his ratings skyrocketing, Hamon’s interests lie more in far-left Melenchon’s votes than in the centre. Fillon’s Républicains may decide to change their candidate at the last minute if Fillon withdraws from the race: his primary rival Juppe has said he will not make a late comeback, but some high-profiles have already registered their own [name] domain names. Still, a last-minute Républicain candidate would struggle to keep up in the 80 days or so left, and would have to do without the democratic legitimacy conferred by the primary.

Le Pen’s programme may lure some on the far-right fringe of Fillon’s supporters. But on both left and right, a rift is opening, and without another centrist to duel for these votes, Emmanuel Macron will sweep in. Le Pen is said to be increasingly aware of him – and she’s got reasons to worry.

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.