You have to hand it to him. The man’s got balls. Six weeks ago, François Fillon, the centre-right candidate in the upcoming French presidential elections, said he would quit the race if he was placed under formal examination over claims that, in effect, he embezzled close to a million euros from the state by paying his wife and children for jobs they never performed. 

Now, with a formal hearing before examining magistrates fixed for March 15, he says he will “surrender” to his accusers and leave it up to the French public to decide who to believe.

“J’irai jusqu’au bout,” he told a hastily convened rally today, attended by hundreds of his supporters, including his Welsh wife, Penelope, and his five children, as well as a pressing throng of hacks. “­I will be there to the end.”

The accusations heaped against him were, he said, an attempt at political assassination. The presumption of innocence had completely disappeared. But he would not be deterred. His wife was with him, his family were with him, his lawyers were with him, and the French people would be with him. 

As for the small matter of the million euros – allegedly paid to his stay-at-home wife and two of his children when they were still at university – pah! “France,” he said, “is bigger than my mistakes.” Like an accountant to the Bourbons, he has dismissed everything and admitted nothing.

But what does this mean for the election?

With Fillon still in the saddle, albeit that it may slip and throw him into the path of the other riders, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron now have to re-readjust their strategy. They will be looking to the former Prime Minister’s Ides of March moment, when he has to stand up in  court and submit himself to interrogation by the examining magistrate assigned to his case. 

Whether or not he is damaged goods might by then become clear. Judging by his appearance and bearing today, when he looked more than ever like an elegant vampire, he is counting on his reputation for probity overwhelming the facts.

Macron was quick to declare that Fillon’s guilt or innocence of the charges against him was a matter between him and his judges. The legal issues were separate from the political campaign and would remain so as far as he was concerned.

Le Pen, who perhaps has the most to lose from a fighting Fillon, is likely to be less discreet and more direct. On the other hand, having been accused by the European Parliament of mususing EU funds for her own political ends, she has legal issues of her own to resolve. On Monday, she promised a purge of the judiciary and the creation of “patriotic” judges who would help her take France forward into a new era. She may choose to focus her assault on Fillon chiefly on his pledge to reduce the number of public employees by half a million and his less than fulsome vow to “do something” about militant Islam. 

Pity the poor French voter. As Fillon put it, without him they were faced with a choice between the Extreme Right and a continuation (via Macron) of “hollandisme”. With him, they have the additional choice of a man who could, in theory, end up behind bars. As if the troubled economy was not enough to be getting on with, they now have this shower from which to choose their leader. 

Fillon had presented himself as the Catholic candidate: Father Brown in a Louis Vuitton suit. Like De Gaulle, he had “a certain idea of France” and would restore sound judgment and morality to the Elysée. But after the revelations in Le Canard Enchainé that he had paid his wife and children large sums of state money for doing just about nothing, hard-pressed voters must surely be asking how he squares doing the wrong thing for his family and the right thing – i.e sending out redundancy notices – to half a million fellow of his countrymen.

Macron, meanwhile, is like a digital candidate. At any point, the switch could be turned off causing him to disappear into thin air, leaving onlookers to wonder if he was ever really there. What does he stand for? He calls his movement En Marche, but where does he want his followers to go, other than into positions of privilege and power? The thing is, nobody knows.

In the end, it will surely all come down to how people feel as they trudge to the voting stations for the second round in May. Do they want a smart young technocrat, who seems to stand for nothing in particular but looks the part, or dare they risk electing the woman who would do what millions of them, in their hearts, wish to see done – the toughening up of the state, Frexit Light and a moderate, caring pogrom of their Muslim minority? Or – and who would have thought it? – should they repose their faith in a man who talks of prudence while raking in illicit cash and living like a pre-Revolutionary aristo?

In Britain, faced with equally stark choices, the result was Brexit. In America, we got Trump. Can France make it three in a row? We shall see.