As Fillon’s campaign stumbles, Macron seizes the spotlight

Supporters are fleeing Francois Fillon as Emmanuel Macron presents his manifesto

When he swept the conservative primary last November 27th, Francois Fillon was the candidate who could not lose the French presidential election.

On Thursday, as officials from his Les Républicains (LR) party stampeded for the door, Fillon looked like the candidate who could not win.

In a defiant statement on Wednesday, Fillon had called the investigation into allegedly ficticious jobs for which his wife and two children were paid a million euro “political assassination.”

"Francois Fillon talks about assassination," Arnaud Robinet, an LR deputy and the mayor of Reims, told France Info radio. "Today, and I say it harshly, it feels more like collective suicide."


Robinet appealed to colleagues to put pressure on Fillon to pull out of the race. Georges Fenech, another LR deputy, asked mayors to send endorsements required by potential candidates in the name of Alain Juppé, who was runner-up in the LR primary, not Fillon.

At least 20 LR officials and campaign workers, including Fillon’s deputy campaign manager and trip organiser, have withdrawn their support for him.

Bruno Le Maire, who came in fourth in the LR primary, resigned as Fillon's foreign policy adviser, taking his entourage went with him. "I believe in keeping one's word," Le Maire said, alluding to Fillon's promise on January 26th to withdraw from the race if he was mis en examen , or formally placed under investigation. Fillon expects to be mis en examen on March 15th.

Le Parisien newspaper, meanwhile, said police searched Fillon's Paris home as part of its investigation.

Defending his honour

Supporters of the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who scored third in the primary, also headed for the exit door. Catherine Vautrin, the Sarkozyste vice president of the LR group in the National Assembly, asked Fillon to "devote himself wholely to defending his honour", adding that she wished  for "another candidate".

Juppé loyalists, including Sébastien Lecornu, deputy director of Fillon’s campaign, jumped ship on Thursday morning.

Fillon was an early favourite to win the French presidential election before reports emerged that his wife Penelope, and their children Marie and Charles, were paid more than €1 million in total for allegedly fictitious jobs, including at the National Assembly.

Voters to go the polls on April 23rd, with the top two candidates going through to a run-off on May 7th.

Only 25 per cent of respondents in a Harris Interactive poll taken after Fillon announced his intention to stay in the race said they wanted him to do so. At the Salon de l’Agriculture, where Fillon spoke on Wednesday afternoon, chants of “Fillon président” were drowned out by cries of “Fillon out,” “Crook,” and “Fillon in prison.”

Campaigning in Nimes on Thursday, he played down the exodus of supporters, asserting that “the base is holding . . . I am counting on the French”.

Libération newspaper likened Fillon's most faithful ally, the LR senator Bruno Retailleau, to the orchestra conductor on the Titanic. Retailleau supported Fillon's plan to hold a rally on the "plaza of human rights" at the Trocadéro in Paris on Sunday.

Fillon's strident criticism of judges has shocked many in his own camp. The conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles called the rally a "march against the coup d'état by judges". Retailleau recast the event as "a rally for our values, for Francois Fillon's recovery plan".

Fillon often quotes Charles de Gaulle, the founder of post-second World War French conservatism. The plan to stage a show of strength is modelled on the massive, pro-de Gaulle demonstration on the Champs-Élysées that put an end to the chaos of the May 1968 “revolution”.

Unfortunately for Fillon, everyone remembers that he used de Gaulle's name last summer, when attacking Sarkozy, saying "Who can imagine the general mis en examen?"

He was seeking then to make political capital of the fact that Sarkozy had himself been placed under formal investigation

Macron ascends

If, as polls indicate, Fillon is eliminated in the first round and the far right Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron contest the second round, it will be the first time since de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958 that the Gaullist tradition will not be represented in the run-off.

The inability of LR leaders to agree on a “plan B” has made it possible for Fillon to maintain his candidacy this long. It has been widely reported that Sarkozy vetoed the obvious solution of replacing Fillon with runner-up Juppé. The former president, it seems, would prefer to see the conservatives lose than to contemplate his old enemy Juppé in the Élysée Palace.

In keeping with Fillon’s oft-evoked manor in the Sarthe department, the “fake jobs” scandal looks positively provincial, compared to the €50 million which Sarkozy allegedly received from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy.

"With Sarkozy, we had the bling-bling right," the ecologist politician Yannick Jadot told Le Figaro. "With Fillon, we have money hidden under the mattresses in Sablé-sur-Sarthe."

The Fillon scandal overshadowed the presentation of Macron’s long-awaited election manifesto on Thursday. Macron’s promise to “forbid parliamentarians from employing relatives, to end nepotism”, was the most widely reported element of his 30-page plan for France.

Fillon has suggested there should be a "judiciary truce" during the campaign. Macron opposes it. "There cannot be zero tolerance for youths in the banlieue and complacency towards white collar and government crime," Macron told Le Parisien newspaper.

Macron wants to establish a universal pension system that would do away with favourable treatment for public sector employees. He would dramatically decrease the size of children’s classes in underprivileged areas, and offer a €3,000 annual bonus to teachers who work there. He has budgeted €15 billion to train the jobless and unqualified youths, and another €15 billion for the transition to renewable energy.

"His youth, the easy smile . . . a centrist programme that wants a more flexible and productive market economy at the same time as measured but real social reforms, there is something of Tony Blair in Macron," Libération's editor Laurent Joffrin wrote.

For his part, Macron claims to be inspired by the Scandinavian model.