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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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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