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10 April 2017

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. 

By Stephen Bush

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.

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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.