Two days before voting starts in the French 2017 presidential election, it’s interesting to look back to last November when voters went massively to the polls to designate the centre right candidate for the French Presidency. Their two main wishes were to eject Nicholas Sarkozy, once and for all, from the political scene and to designate a fresh face with a reputation for integrity and a bold programme. Not only to take over from a worn and indecisive François Hollande but also to put France back on track after nearly 15 years of drift. François Fillon emerged from that primary in what was perceived at the time as a decisive victory for both his hard-hitting ideas and his credibility to put them into practice. He had successfully discredited Sarkozy, foiled a second round challenge from Alain Juppé and cloaked himself in the image of the revered de Gaulle. Opinion polls at the time predicted that he would win a decisive victory over Marine Le Pen in the run-off on May 7.
How different things look today. If a week is long time in politics, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson used to say, five months have taken a terrible toll on François Fillon. First came revelations, published by the Canard Enchaîné, about his employment, as an MP, of his wife and two of his children as parliamentary assistants, for very generous salaries but, it was suspected, very little actual work. This was followed by the immediate start of an investigation by a special prosecutor, even though the employment of family members by French MPs is not in itself illegal, as Fillon was quick to point out. Further revelations followed about generous gifts from successful businessmen, the series of “affairs” culminating in both Fillon and his wife being placed under formal investigation (mise en examen) on suspicion of embezzlement. Every media interview focused far more on these matters than on Fillon’s programme, party colleagues turned away from him and urged him to quit and he spent more time responding, sometimes vigorously, sometimes awkwardly, to these allegations than to explaining how his programme would be applied. Despite his dogged determination to fight on against the odds, he has never regained the aura of November 2016. Two seemingly insignificant events yesterday show just how far he has fallen and seem to indicate that the game is finally up. First he refused to be interviewed by Le Monde, which claimed that he had ruled out being questioned about his personal affairs. This morning, he pulled out of a meeting with students of a special training school for future computer whizz kids because some of the students were reportedly planning to use his visit to mount a protest demonstration - an incident that would not have looked at all good on TV just four days before the first round of voting.
The result of all this is that the candidate who looked unbeatable at the end of November has now been made to look devious and cynical and his ideas unnecessarily harsh and out-dated. The aborted visit to the computer school is indeed indicative of the way the battle of ideas has slipped from Fillon’s grasp. The bold programme of last November has now come to be seen as a collection of unfair and reactionary recipes, appealing only to narrow electoral fringes like hard line Catholics and privileged conservatives. A wider appeal to the young and the middle classes, which was always going to be difficult, has largely failed to take root. One of Fillon’s sentences at a meeting the other day neatly illustrates the point. Appealing to the traditional values of France, he scathingly referred to the supposed vision of his main rival, Emmanuel Macron, as the “France of the open space”. Now, however much the concept of the open space has come in for criticism by people who work in one every day, it is nevertheless the symbol of a new way of working together, widely used in many established companies as well as start-ups, especially in the net economy. In just one sentence Fillon has unwittingly made himself look like an old fuddy-duddy, out of touch with young people and particularly young innovators, one of the groups that holds the key to France’s future.
Debate will undoubtedly continue for many months about the reasons for Fillon’s fall from grace. Was he solely responsible for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, or has there been a plot initiated at the highest level of the state and fuelled by a merciless media campaign to discredit him and ensure that his bold but unpalatable remedies would never be applied? The answer is probably a bit of both - but is now largely irrelevant to the outcome of the presidential vote. The damage has been done and it is probably irreparable. I am sure I am not the only one to feel that French voters have thus been deprived of a clear-cut choice between a seemingly harsh but realistic and well thought-out programme applied by a skilled politician, backed by a solid parliamentary majority and a number of fresh and interesting ideas advocated by a relative political novice but with no guarantee of a supporting majority in parliament. On Sunday April 23, the most likely outcome is that Fillon will fail to make it to the run-off and that the only choice left will be between two largely untested candidates, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.
On May 8, while voters digest the final outcome and consider their options for the parliamentary elections in June, François Fillon will have all the time in the world to ponder a quotation attributed to Britain’s famous 19th century Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli: “Next to knowing when to seize an opportunity, the most important thing in life is to know when to forgo an advantage.”