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6 March 2017

Will François Fillon quit – or bring his party down with him?

The mainstream right's French Presidential candidate has put his party in a very difficult position. His ego could wreck everything. 

By Pauline Bock

François Fillon’s campaign has reached a dead-end, but the Conservative candidate for the French presidency does not seem to have noticed.

While his team disintegrated over the weekend, with aides and supporters resigning en masse after his decision to keep running while being placed under investigation into a “fake” jobs scandal involving his wife, Fillon persisted. On Sunday, he invited his loyal followers to gather on Paris’s Trocadéro square near the Eiffel Tower and boasted that “200,000 people” had come to show their support. (Police counted between 45,000 and 50,000 attendees.) When asked that night on national TV if he would withdraw from the race, Fillon doubled down.

“No one can stop me from running, no one holds the power to force me to withdraw my candidacy,” he said, adding that he is still supported by “a majority of centre right and centrist voters”. He had also previously accused the press and the French justice to be biased against him in what he called “a political assassination”.

He may still have unyielding faith in his chance to win the keys to the Elysée palace, but Fillon is now without a campaign chief, a spokesperson or a treasurer. As National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s voting base is growing, could one man’s ego precipitate his party’s failure – and wreck the French election?

For a few hours over the weekend, French Republicans believed they had found the man of the moment. Alain Juppé, who came second in the Republican primary last November, had the experience, the stature and the support (polls showed his potential bid overtaking Le Pen’s in the first round) to replace Fillon’s sinking ship. But in a press conference this morning, Juppé announced that he would “not be candidate to the presidency, once and for all”.Juppé deplored a “radicalised” core of right-wing supporters – Fillon’s – and said it was “too late” for him. “What a waste,” he summed up.

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For the centre right, the biggest waste is still to come. Fillon is plunging in the polls: he is now third behind hard-right Le Pen and centrist Macron, and some polls put him just one percentage point ahead of the Socialist Benoît Hamon. Among the Republicans, he is widely seen as unfit to run and many centre right voters may consider Macron’s centrist alliance instead.

But at the Trocadéro on Sunday, the Fillon faithful declared that they wouldn’t vote if he withdraws, or that they would vote Le Pen. Quite a radicalised core vote indeed. If Fillon resigns, these supporters may be lost to the Republicans for good – once a voter crosses the Rubicon of the National Front, there is rarely a coming back.

Fillon’s egotrip has created a stunningly impossible situation. If he resigns, the void he leaves is unlikely to be filled by a credible candidate in time for the candidacy deadline (March 17). His diehard supporters may vote for Le Pen while the Republican party descends into chaos. But if he doesn’t resign, he still has very little chance of making it to the run-up. In this scenario, chaos on the right ensues, too.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a three-men meeting with Juppé and Fillon, to find “a credible and dignified exit to this situation, which cannot stand”. (A good clue to know when a situation cannot stand; it’s whenever Nicolas Sarkozy believes it is time for him to step in.) The meeting is planned for this week.

There may be one exit for Fillon, which would deflate his swollen ego and give the Republicans a fair chance without driving voters to Le Pen. This would take the form of a “dignified” resignation right after he meets with judges next week, followed by the nomination of a successor picked among the few who remained loyal over the weekend.

This may just about keep up appearances. The name of François Baroin, a Republican Senator and mayor and a former minister of Fillon’s, is buzzing in Republican ranks. A loyal “Fillonist” and a protégé of Jacques Chirac, he was literally standing behind the candidate at the Trocadéro rally and could be the face of the Republicans coming together. At 51, he’s also younger – and could even take on Emmanuel Macron’s claim to the race’s beau title.

But for now, Fillon is stuck, and facing an investigation. Perhaps that’s why he is desperately clinging on to his bid – it’s either the Presidency, or a very hard fall back to earth.