Does the fall of François Fillon spell victory for Emmanuel Macron?

Placed under formal investigation, the Conservative candidate has chosen to stay in the race - despite having promised not to do so.

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It was already a bad week for Conservative French presidential candidate François Fillon. He has slumped to third in most polls, behind the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the hard-right leader Marine Le Pen, after a string of revelations left his campaign is a disastrous state. But, apparently, things can still get worse for the French centre-right.

Fillon has been placed under formal investigation regarding the fake job scandal surrounding him and his wife Penelope, he announced earlier today. He will meet with judges on March 15. Throughout his press conference, Fillon claimed his innocence and said he would stay in the race. “I will not yield, I will not withdraw. I did not embezzle public money,” he said, before blaming the French judicial system. “The rule of law has been systematically violated, the presumption of innocence has disappeared.”

He especially focused on the date of the judicial summons: March 15, two days before the deadline for candidacy in the presidential election, which will be held on 23 April (first round) and 7 May (second). In a dramatic move, he declared: “It’s not just me who got assassinated – it is the presidential election!”

But one could argue that Fillon assassinated himself. Indeed, on January 26, he declared on national TV that he would only withdraw from the race if he was placed under formal investigation. (If you speak French, here is the video). To French voters already distrustful of the political system, his decision to keep running looks even worse than the case being investigated in the first place.

The scandal broke in late January, when the weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné alleged that his wife Penelope and their children had been paid thousands of euros for parliamentary assistant jobs for which no proof of actual work could be found. Last week, after a month of preliminary investigation, the Paris financial prosecutor’s office opened a judicial investigation into the candidate. Meanwhile, newspapers are sniffing out new leads.

After such a political scandal focused around his wife – it has been called “Penelopegate” – Fillon’s marriage is under strain, too. In the last weeks, Fillon also told Paris Match magazine that Penelope was “ready to talk”, but he “wasn’t really for it.”

With both his reputation and his campaign in the gutter, Fillon must prepare for defections from all sides of his Republican party. Bruno le Maire, a former minister of Fillon’s under Sarkozy, has already resigned from his campaign team. Before the press conference, Republican MP Henri Gaino declared: “François Fillon cannot lead a campaign any more. Everyone knows that he could not govern if elected president. Not in such a situation.”

If Fillon's fall continues, Republicans will find themselves without a political home come May. Elected Republicans on the right are unlikely to publicly call to vote for far-right Le Pen – although the most right-wing of his voters may well decide to do so on their own. But many of his supporters on the centre-right will face a tough choice - keep supporting a liar, or defect to cheer for centrist Macron.

After the revelations broke, Macron overtook Fillon as the favourite to beat Le Pen. Already attracting voters seduced by his “neither left nor right” discourse, and strengthened by supports from centrist beast François Bayrou and many Socialists, Macron increasingly looks like the only viable option for the centre right, too. Latest polls put him at 25 per cent against Le Pen’s 27. Before his announcement this morning, Fillon was already trailing behind with 20 per cent. His vote intentions will probably plunge again now – and that opens a boulevard for Macron.

The fake jobs scandal and Fillon’s daring response will make the rest of his campaign a very wild ride. But it’s not just Republicans who will fight back. To the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, Fillon’s words this morning were “incredibly violent towards the magistrates and the French justice". All other candidates must be celebrating today – Fillon just gave them the perfect attack for every single debate until election day.

But Fillon remains unperturbed. This morning, he suddenly cancelled his visit to the Agriculture Show – a tradition of the French campaign trail, where candidates get to try wines and pet cows. He now is planning to visit it this afternoon.

Sipping the latest Pinot Noir aside, Fillon faces a struggle – in the polls, in the debates, against the “biased” press and the judicial system, with his remaining supporters if they exist.

During the hour of chaos that preceded Fillon’s conference this morning, a journalist from the Figaro newspaper witnessed a scene at the candidate’s campaign HQ: a portrait of François Fillon had fallen from the wall, and they were desperately trying to put it back on, without success. Until someone commented: “It’s not worth it, stop trying.”

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency. 

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