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]2017.fr 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.