Frantic talk of ‘Plan B’ as PenelopeGate wrecks Fillon’s Elysée run

Fillon Penelope

Fillon Penelope

Officially, France’s conservatives don’t have an alternative to their embattled presidential candidate. But as François Fillon flounders, they may have to come up with one fast.

Are France’s conservatives about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? When he routed his rivals in a conservative primary back in November, Fillon must have believed he had more than a foot in the Élysée Palace. With the ruling Socialists all but written off, opinion polls suggested the candidate for the centre-right Les Républicains was a shoo-in for the presidency. But in the quicksand of French politics, nothing has gone according to plan.

After a torrid week of damning allegations and a calamitous defence, the former prime minister is now stranded on the edge of a cliff, his squeaky-clean reputation jeopardised by suspicions his wife Penelope was paid €900,000 from state funds for a “fake job” as his parliamentary assistant. With PenelopeGate dominating headlines, Fillon’s panic-stricken camp is suddenly staring at an ignominious defeat.

“In Fillon’s wake, the entire conservative camp is living an ordeal,” wrote Le Monde on Wednesday, as the embattled candidate summoned the party’s lawmakers at his HQ for a crisis meeting. According to an MP who attended the gathering, Fillon railed against a “coup” allegedly ordained by the left in order to smear him. He begged his supporters to stand by him another 15 days as he scrambles to clear his name. Given the speed with which his campaign is unravelling, it is doubtful they can wait that long. And if not, what happens?

‘Nothing is planned’

Thierry Solère, Fillon’s spokesman and the primary’s main organiser, confirmed to FRANCE 24 that “nothing is planned” in the event of a candidate’s withdrawal. The party’s statutes, published in May 2015, don’t even mention the possibility. Article 38 says “the candidate for the presidency of the Republic is designated in an open primary”. It notes that “no primary is organized if the incumbent president is a party member and a candidate for a second mandate”. But the prospect of a nominee pulling out is never mentioned.

With just three months to go before the first round of the president election, on April 23, organizing a whole new primary is not an option. Nor is the runner-up in the original contest, Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, ready to step in as a “replacement” candidate – or so he claims. Challenged by reporters on the subject, Juppé “clearly and definitively” excluded the idea. He added: “Fillon has provided some persuasive arguments [in his defence], I am convinced he will be able to pursue his campaign.”

Judging by a poll released on Tuesday, more than three quarters of French voters beg to differ. The poll said 76% of people surveyed were not convinced by Fillon’s defence. And that was before a new slew of allegations published on Wednesday in satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, which almost doubled the money Penelope Fillon is claimed to have earned from state coffers.

Under French law it is not illegal for MPs to employ family members as assistants, provided they actually do the work. But the Canard claimed it could find no evidence that Mrs Fillon had been doing her job as parliamentary assistant for her husband and later another MP. It alleged Fillon had also employed two of his sons as assistants, to the tune of €84,000, before they completed their training as lawyers.

Traitor or saviour?

The conservative candidate, who was questioned by investigators on Monday, may yet be cleared of wrongdoing, but experts warn that the damage is done. Surveys carried out during the primary in November showed that “integrity” was Fillon’s main vote-winner. It was the contrast between his austere, un-divorced, father-of-five persona and the scandal-plagued Nicolas Sarkozy that swayed so many social conservatives. “His candidacy rests on three pillars: probity, a strong work ethic and an aversion to state handouts,” said Thomas Guénolé, a writer and political analyst. “All three [pillars] are blown away by PenelopeGate,” he added.

Fillon has said he will only step down if he is “mis en examen”, or placed under formal investigation – which, in the French legal system, means prosecutors believe they have sufficient grounds to pursue the case. While the preliminary enquiry was opened in record time, deciding whether to press ahead with a full investigation can take several months. Fillon and his camp, however, can ill-afford to campaign with a sword of Damocles dangling ominously overhead.

Time is playing against Les Républicains. Presidential candidates have until March 17 to formally declare their bids. If Fillon is “mis en examen” after that date, and keeps his word by quitting, then Les Républicains would find themselves in the extraordinary situation of having no candidate in an election that was theirs to lose.

Unless, of course, other aspirants throw their hat in the ring before then. Already, a string of alternative bids have been rumoured and promptly denied. On Wednesday, lawmaker Philippe Gosselin publicly urged Juppé to “think about it”. Others have evoked a shock return for Sarkozy, who was unceremoniously dumped out in the primary. As long as Les Républicains have an official candidate, nobody will want to carry the “Brutus” tag. But as the Fillon candidacy continues to flounder, it may only be a matter of time before traitors are seen as saviours.