Opinion

Can Francois Fillon survive?

He looked like a shoo-in to be France's next president. Now he's struggling to keep his head above water.

Back in November, François Fillon, a former prime minister of France, won the conservative primary in the race towards the French presidential election. It was a smashing upset, and he looked like a shoo-in for the general election. After five years of a deeply unpopular socialist government, the French people looked set for change.

But Fillon's moment in the spotlight quickly went from blessing to curse.

Shortly after Fillon won the primary, a cascade of revelations hit the presses. It turns out that for nearly a decade, he had employed his own wife as a parliamentary aide with a very generous salary. More worryingly, his wife was also employed by a journal owned by a politically connected billionaire. In both cases, there is little evidence that she did much actual work. Then it came out that, back in 2012, Fillon started and owned a "consulting firm" that received serious dough from corporations for speeches and "advisory work."

The practice is by all accounts legal. French parliamentarians get a lump sum to spend on parliamentary aides, and their spending is discretionary. The practice of putting spouses on the payroll is even commonplace. Fillon's runner-up was once sentenced for running a large fake jobs and kickback scheme involving public housing, and the third man in the primary, former President Sarkozy, is under investigation for allegedly taking suitcases of cash from Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to finance his presidential campaign and then launching strikes on Libya at least in part to remove the evidence. By contrast, Fillon looks like a choir boy. Still, the man campaigned on his own personal integrity, and right now, the populace is absolutely fed up with self-dealing politicians.

Fillon didn't help himself by panicking in his response to the allegations against him. At first, he tried to own it, embracing the fact that he worked with his family because he trusted them, even disclosing that he hired two of his sons "as lawyers" to work on drafting bills, only to have it later come out that, at the time, they were not technically lawyers, but were still law students, and whatever work they were paid for was well above market.

Fillon then claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy, something which, in the murky world of French politics, is almost certainly true. The timing of the revelations has certainly been fortuitous for Fillon's adversaries. Still, politics, as they say, is a contact sport, and Fillon is an old hand who knows the game. Fillon eventually apologized, and it seems that the trickle of revelations has died down.

Still, the hit has been noticeable. In two polls, Fillon has been relegated to third place (though within the margin of error), behind Emmanuel Macron, the center-left former economy minister who is riding high in the polls and is trying to perform the unprecedented in French politics, winning the presidency as an independent centrist.

What does the smart money bet on, now?

This pundit's forecast is that the smart money is still on Fillon. Right now, Macron and Fillon are neck and neck in the polls, but half of Macron supporters say they might yet change their minds, while most of Fillon's remaining supporters are dedicated. In other words, Macron has nowhere to go but down, and Fillon, barring an even bigger scandal, has nowhere to go but up. In every French presidential cycle, a supposedly post-partisan centrist rides high in the polls with a strong assist from France's neoliberal media before crashing back down to Earth as French people realize that they really are partisans, and as party machines deliver the votes that high-minded speeches and magazine covers don't. Still, Fillon's margin of error has narrowed down to basically nothing, and the race is now more open than it has ever been.

The question is what happens now. Fillon's success in the primary looked like the beginning of the great return of Catholicism as a potent force in French politics; now it looks like a cautionary tale about a familiar pitfall of religious politics, the saintly savior who turns out to be a hypocrite. The catastrophic incompetence of Fillon's PR during the scandal also calls into question what he will be like as president. While the storm seems to have died down, many in Fillon's camp ran for the exits at the first sign of trouble. Someone who aspires to be a bold reformer as president, as Fillon claims, will need to find some way to hold his majority together and communicate skillfully in order to actually carry out those reforms; thus far, Fillon has failed at demonstrating either skill.

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