Twisting Slowly in the French Wind

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French presidential canditdate Francois Fillon speaks to supporters at a rally in Paris.  

The gods apparently have no love for François Fillon, who for the moment remains the candidate of the center-right Republican Party for the French presidency. They poured rain on the impassioned speech he gave to supporters this Sunday at the Place du Trocadéro opposite the Eiffel Tower in Paris. As pressure mounted from within his own party to quit the race, Fillon sought to mobilize his troops in a final desperate effort to rescue his candidacy.

For the conservative politician from rural west France, who has been in government since he turned 27 in 1981, the last few months have marked a vertiginous fall from near-certainty of becoming France’s next president to pending indictment for misappropriation of government funds. At the end of November he emerged as the surprise winner of the first-ever Republican primary, defeating both former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, the favorite in early polling, and former President Nicolas Sarkozy, under whom Fillon had served for five years as prime minister.

Unlike Juppé, who was sidelined from politics for a time after being convicted years ago of paying campaign staffers for no-show government jobs, and Sarkozy, who is currently under investigation in several corruption cases, Fillon had never been tainted by scandal. He built his candidacy on his image as Mr. Clean, reminding voters that both of his opponents had been in trouble with the law by invoking the example of the impeccable founder of the Fifth Republic: “Who can imagine for a single moment General de Gaulle indicted?”

Now these words have come back to haunt him. In January the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that Fillon had for years employed his wife Penelope, ostensibly as a parliamentary assistant, although there appears to be no tangible evidence that she actually functioned in that capacity. He also allegedly paid his children for campaign staff work. In addition, Penelope Fillon received 100,000 euros for three pages of book reports she wrote for a literary journal owned by a financier friend of the former prime minister.

These revelations launched an immediate investigation by a panel of special prosecutors put in place specifically to investigate political corruption after Socialist budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac was disgraced for hiding large sums of money in Switzerland and Singapore. Initially, Fillon welcomed the investigation and urged the prosecutors to “move quickly” to clear his name so that he could get on with his presidential campaign. He also said that he would end his presidential bid only if he were indicted. But when it became clear that the investigators were not buying this defense, Fillon stiffened his rhetoric. His political enemies had organized an “institutional coup d’état,” he charged, and he called on his supporters to “resist.”

Then, last week, the scandal took a dramatic turn. On Wednesday, Fillon abruptly canceled a scheduled visit to an agricultural fair that is an obligatory passage for all presidential candidates. Rumors quickly spread that he was going to be indicted on corruption charges. Later that day, the beleaguered candidate held a news conference in which he confirmed that he had been summoned to appear on March 15 before an investigating magistrate with the “likelihood” that he would face formal charges. Yet despite having said previously that he would end his candidacy if indicted, he maintained his defiant stance. There was a conspiracy against him, he intimated. The judicial system was doing the bidding of unnamed enemies. His supporters should resist this attempt to deprive the right of its legitimate candidate, anointed by the November primary.

This was too much for some who had previously joined Team Fillon. Bruno Le Maire, who had himself been a candidate for the presidency but rallied to Fillon after losing badly in the primary, announced that he could no longer support a man who renounced his promise to drop out if indicted. Fillon’s campaign manager and chief spokesperson also quit. Nearly 100 Republican deputies withdrew their support. Republican regional governor Xavier Bertrand issued the lapidary judgment that “in a republic jeering at the judicial system is not allowed.” Alain Juppé, whom Fillon had defeated in the November primary runoff, let it be known through surrogates that he was available for a “Plan B,” but only if Fillon voluntarily withdrew and endorsed his former rival.

Sunday’s rally at Trocadéro was meant to head off any attempted putsch. But it is not clear that Fillon remains in control. A meeting of Republican bigwigs is scheduled for Monday to “evaluate the situation.” Many in the party are dismayed that Fillon has chosen to attack the courts and pit “the street” against the “institutions of the Republic,” a tactic that only legitimates the longstanding allegations of the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen that the country is run by a clique of corrupt politicians who sometimes avail themselves of the courts to eliminate troublesome rivals (Le Pen herself is facing indictment for similar charges that she used European Parliament funds to pay her campaign staff).

But even more troubling to party officials than the populist turn Fillon’s candidacy has taken are the polls showing him losing to the centrist Emmanuel Macron in the first round and thus leaving the Republicans with no candidate in the second round against Le Pen. Fillon has been so distracted by the scandal that he has been unable to wage a campaign on the issues.

If Fillon leaves the race, the consequences are incalculable. Polls suggest that Juppé would be a stronger candidate against both Le Pen and Macron, but the polls overestimated Juppé’s appeal in the primary and may be overestimating his strength now. Fillon’s base, which rejected Juppé in part because they judged him to be too liberal on social issues such as gay marriage and too soft on Islamist radicalism, might jump to Le Pen (despite her relatively liberal stance on gays). On the other hand, centrist voters, some of whom threw their support to Macron after he was endorsed by François Bayrou, the centrist mayor of Pau, might switch to the Republicans if Juppé were to become the candidate.

In short, a race that had seemed at last to be settling into a two-person contest between Macron and Le Pen would again be plunged into radical uncertainty with less than two months remaining before the first-round vote on April 23. The danger of a Le Pen victory, though still unlikely if one believes the polls, is therefore not to be discounted. France is in the grip of anxiety as the craziest electoral process in living memory continues its chaotic course.

UPDATE: To add to the uncertainty, Juppé announced early Monday morning that he would not be a candidate, but now Sarkozy has steeped forward, offering to lead an effort to help the party sort things out. The party leadership is scheduled to meet this evening to consider further steps.

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