François Fillon’s coup de théâtre shocks and dismays

And for my next trick… EPA/Yoan Valat

For much of the morning of March 1, the French media was buzzing with the news that François Fillon might be about to drop out of the 2017 presidential race. The rumours started flying the moment it was revealed, a little before 8am, that Fillon was postponing his trip to the Salon de l’Agriculture event in Paris, and would instead be holding a press conference at his campaign HQ. The announcement could not have been more last minute. Members of Fillon’s own team, waiting outside the exhibition centre, only found out by phone.

While a photo opportunity with a cow might not be everyone’s idea of the dream selfie, in France, where farming is such a central part of cultural identity, it is unthinkable that a candidate with serious presidential aspirations would stand up the Salon de l’Agriculture. Marine Le Pen attended the day before and Emmanuel Macron was due to arrive just a little after Fillon.

The buzz was further fuelled by the sight of various party heavyweights coming and going from Fillon’s HQ. At one point, it was said that Fillon had spoken at length with former rivals Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy. This prompted speculation that one of them – probably Juppé – would be stepping in to replace him.

Then, as the nation looked on, holding its collective breath, Fillon stepped up to the podium to announce that no, he would not be standing down. He would battle on, despite the allegations of corruption that continue to dog his candidacy. It had all been a coup de théâtre.

Sticking it out

Despite Fillon’s previous tough talk and the continued outward support of the party leadership, the Republican grassroots have remained uneasy. At the weekends, when members of the French parliament have been out in their constituencies, they’ve been getting it in the neck. Why were they allowing this candidate to continue, when the stakes are so high? This is an election the right’s supporters cannot bear to lose … and are about to.

Some local party dignitaries have suddenly been finding that they haven’t space in their diaries to host a campaign meeting – as happened in Limoges, for example, where the right won in the 2014 municipal elections, after more than a century of left-wing administration.

Macron made it to the salon. EPA/Christophe Petit Tesson

One way or another, it has been very difficult for Fillon’s campaign to get out of first gear in this race. He hasn’t been helped by left-wing agitators turning up at his meetings and banging saucepans – a reference to the French expression “traîner des casseroles”, meaning to have dirty linen.

Authorities continue to investigate whether Fillon’s wife Penelope actually did the job she was being paid to do by her husband over a number of years. The Fillons have now been summoned to attend preliminary hearings on March 15 and 18, which could then lead to them being indicted. This is embarrassing enough in its own right, but the date is critical, because the March 17 marks the closing date for the Constitutional Council to receive the 500 signatures candidates require to be ratified.

Rumour of the dates had made it to the mainstream press by mid-morning, but were only confirmed by Fillon himself when he finally appeared before the press at a little after 12.30. Fillon has maintained, since the story broke in Le Canard enchaîné in late January, that, while employing his wife (and children) as assistants may have been an error of judgement on his part, he has done nothing illegal and that the work was done.

I’ve been stitched up!

For Fillon, the whole process has been orchestrated by the Socialist government. He claims it is manipulating the judiciary to undermine his candidature. If the opinion polls are anything to go by (and we may have our doubts about them), Fillon will be eliminated in the first round, with Le Pen and Macron going into the run off.

Herein lay the core of Fillon’s message. The decision to proceed with the case, as he put it during the press conference, is to set up a contest between the far right and “a continuation of Hollandisme”. This he refuses to countenance. Only the electorate can decide an election and he intends to fight on, with “the support of my family, the support of my political family and in the name of four million right-wing voters” who participated in the primary.

Looked at one way, then, the decision to postpone his visit to the Salon might have been a simple expedient to avoid news of the dates of the hearing breaking while he was in no position to respond to them. But looked at from another angle, given the feverish activity at his HQ, it could well have been yet another poorly managed attempt to shake out any doubters, a ridiculous game of stare out.

Fillon eventually found time to pat a few cows. EPA

As it is, the press conference has led to Fillon losing Bruno Le Maire, his foreign affairs spokesman, on the grounds that despite promises that if he were indicted he would step down, Fillon has gone back on his word. According to some sources, Le Maire was the only voice calling for Fillon to stand down in favour of Juppé. And later today, the Union des Démocrates et Indépendants, Les Républicains’ centre-right allies, will decide if they will continue to support Fillon.

If it was nothing more than an attempt to put himself back in the spotlight, then it worked, for a few hours at least. And at least it meant Fillon didn’t have to bump into Macron across a cow’s rear quarters. (Fillon later announced he would go to the show in the afternoon.)

Fillon has made it clear that his candidature is not negotiable and that he intends to fight on till the end. It could well be a bitter one.

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