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The notion of François Fillon as the frontrunner and favourite to be the next President of France always looked a little fanciful. He’s my tasse de thé, certainly, but I’m not French and while I adore the place it seems unlikely that my eccentric view, that France needs a dramatic burst of pro-market reform to give it some urgently required va-va voom, was ever likely to find favour with a majority of voters.
Even up against Marine Le Pen, leader of the FN, there was always going to be a problem with the idea of a classical liberal and sensible reformer such as Fillon winning the election when the run-off is held on the 7th of May this year. Especially when Le Pen has been rebranded as an anti-elite, anti-Establishment figure, on which the Guardian Long Read on Florian Philippot, the closest adviser to the French far-right leader, is very good.
Philippot cannot stand the EU, incidentally, and if Le Pen wins this is not good for the EU.
You British are all forgetting, the editor of a French news magazine told me recently, that television will be very important in this year’s election, as it was in Brexit and in the US election. Fillon has already agreed that he will appear with Le Pen on a TV debate if the pair end up in the final two. And she could win.
Imagine the questions in the TV debate when it turns to welfare provision, the working week and trimming pension entitlements. The audience grows restive. Fillon is under fire for his previous Thatcherite positions, from which he has inched away to win centrist voters. His pitch that he is the great reformer is by the time of the debate extremely confused in the minds of suspicious voters. Le Pen says: “What is he? A typical tired Establishment figure who has had his time? Or is he a Thatcherite who wants to slash the state and sell it off to multi-national firms? Does he even know? How are we to know which Fillon will turn up for work in the morning if he is elected? You have complete certainty with me. You may not agree with everything I say, but you can be certain I will defend the French way of life. Your hard-earned workers rights and your pensions are safe with me. Vive la France!”
That would be hokum, of course. But powerful hokum. And who is to say it would not work?
It may now be immaterial, however, and Fillon may not be on the stage come election day, if today’s reports are correct. The latest polling shows him not making the final two. Conducted by Elabe for Les Echos, it shows Macron in the first round voting intentions up one point to 22-23%. Le Pen is up 3 to 26-27%. Fillon in third place is down 6 to 19-20%.
Fillon is looking f……..inished. Yesterday the police raided parliament in the search for evidence in a fraud inquiry. Fillon denies everything and says he is the victim of a plot. (Any furtive Russian cyber-types been seen nearby?)
The allegations is that his British wife Penelope was on the books at parliament, paid by the taxpayer, yet was at home throughout and had no email or pass during the period in question. She also had a well-paid contract to review books for a magazine, but only two seem to have been published. Two of Fillon’s children also worked for him.
In total payments of almost one million euros to the family are reported to be involved. That’s a lot of baguettes and cases of claret. In traditional French politics this financial manoeuvre would be deemed a) not very surprising and b) a secret. These are not normal times, however, and the populist tide is running in France too.
The far-left Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon is trailing. Which means that if Fillon really has had it, the election may become an unenviable choice between Le Pen and a gentleman called Emmanuel Macron, the shouty, thrusting independent chap on the centre or moderate centre-left who is billed as a French Tony Blair. (What could possibly go wrong?)
Macron v Le Pen, then. Macron is 39 years old. One is not supposed to mention that his wife is 24 years older than he is, and that they met when he was 15 and she was his school teacher. It’s the kind of thing voters claim not to notice while thinking it just a bit bizarre. Non?
Buy Le Pen. Sell EU.