Francois Fillon
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Despite everything, François Fillon is still in contention - just

The discredited candidate of the conservative mainstream is damaged, but his presidential prospects aren't dead yet. 

In the French presidential race, all of the excitement is coming from the left. Emmanuel Macron runs as neither of the left or the right but the reality is that much of his programme, not to mention his highest profile supporters, comes from the centre and centre-left. Benoît Hamon is struggling in the polls but has articulated a fresh programme jampacked with new ideas. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s surge has raised the exciting prospect that far from the all-right affair that many predicted the second round of the French presidential contest to be, it could yet be a contest between the left and centre.

But despite that, the winner might be the unnoticed and increasingly derided candidate of the mainstream right, François Fillon. Fillon, anointed as the presumptive President after his surprise triumph over Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, has seen his standing in the opinion polls slide as a result of the “Penelopegate” scandal. He is accused of paying his wife, Penelope, to work as his assistant, while she in fact remained at home and did no work at all. Although, as in the United Kingdom, French politicians are not prohibited from hiring their relatives, they are prohibited from paying their relatives if they are not working.

The continued investigation into Fillon’s standing has seen him buffeted by speculation that he might stand down for another candidate of the right. But now that the 17 March filing date has come and gone, the 11 candidates on the ballot are on the ballot. The Republicans’  hope of retaking the Presidency now rest on Fillon, for good or for ill.

But for all Fillon’s well-advertised problems, his support has proved remarkably resilient. He is still consistently polling 18-20 per cent in much polls, never quite pulling out of contention for the top two entirely. (Under the rules of France’s electoral system, if one of the candidates cannot get more than half of the vote in the first round, the top two go through to a second round a week later.)

All of which means that if Marine Le Pen’s insistence that France was not responsible for the rounding up of Parisian Jews during the Second World War, or Emmanuel Macron’s inexperience on a long campaign see them falling back in the polls, Fillon might yet struggle through.

And in a way, the outcome most in keeping with the shocks of last year would be for Fillon – discredited, scandal-ridden, shameless – to somehow win despite it all.

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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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