Can Fillon recover lost ground?

By Samuel Sigere
2 March 2017
France France
Can the left come out on top in the most turbulent French presidential election in modern times?
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François Fillon, the candidate of the right and long-time favourite to succeed to French president François Holland, has seen his presidential prospect overshadowed by a preliminary investigation for potential misuse of public funds. The scandal, dubbed ‘Penelopegate’, started at the end of January when a newspaper alleged that Fillon had paid his wife about €500,000 (£430,000) over the course of eight years for a ‘fictitious job’ as parliamentary assistant from 1998 to 2007. The work of Penelope Fillon is untraceable and in May 2007, in an interview given to the Telegraph, she declared that she had never been his assistant.

Fillon’s defence has been erratic, weak and overall unconvincing. For a candidate whose selling point is his probity, the allegations have had dire consequences. The campaign has been derailed, rightwing activists are demoralised and the candidate has had to fend off several calls to stand down and even to calm a rebellion from parliamentarians. In opinion polls, Fillon has lost ground. Before the scandal, he polled around 25% in voting intention for the first round on 27 April. Now, new polls only credit him with about 19%. Meanwhile about 80% of voters see him as dishonest.

Une ouverture, mais pour qui?

Fillon’s demise has consolidated the position of farright candidate Marine Le Pen and revitalised the prospect of other candidates such as Emmanuel Macron and Benoit Hamon.

Holding a solid 26-27% when it comes to voting intention in the first round, Le Pen is more than assured to be present at the second round of the election on 7 May. Her voting base is fairly solid with 74% of those who say they intend to vote for her declaring their choice as final. She is seen as the candidate that really wants to reform the country.

With 24% when it comes to voting intention in the first round, up 3% from in January, Emmanuel Macron, the candidate who has created the center-left movement En Marche! (Forward!) seems to be the biggest winner from Fillon’s debacle. Were he to take part in the runoff on 7 May, polls declare him winner against Le Pen with a very tight margin.

Surprise winner of the primary of the Socialist party and its allies Benoit Hamon has surged in the polls and is now credited with 13% in the first round, up from 5.5% since January, taking away votes from from Melanchon and Macron. His base is relatively stable with 40% of the people who intend to vote for him declare they are not likely to change their mind.

Les travaux d’Hercules!

Given these conditions, can a candidate of the left become the next president of the France? It would seem so.

So far, Macron is the favourite and the best positioned to make it. He is the better liked politician of the election and is seen as one of the most presidential. He does, however, have a lot work to do.

Macron’s voting base is weak compared to the other candidates. Only 33% of the people who intend to vote for him declare their voting intention as definitive. His recent alliance with Francois Bayrou, leader of the center-right party the Modem, helps him consolidate some votes. The presence of Bayrou in his team also provides Macron’s campaign with the voice and the gravitas of a senior figure in French politics to help seduce voters.

For Macron, much hinges on the reception to the presentation of his ‘presidential project’, announced today. Though some of the measures he has proposed thus far have been well received, it remains to see what the overall project will look like and how voters will react to it.

Hamon’s chances to participate in the 7 May runoff depend on his capacity to unite the left. Hamon needs to find a compromise with Jean-Luc Melanchon, another far-left candidate, in order to avoid a costly fragmentation of the vote. Hamon’s visit to Portugal could inspire him to mimic the alliance of leftwing parties which governs Portugal since 2015.

If such a consolidation were to be achieved, Hamon should campaign on his programme, which includes his proposition to establish a universal income of 750 euros for all citizens, a promise well-liked during the primary campaign, and expand his base. By dissociating himself from President Holland and not endorsing the economic and social results of the past five years, Hamon believes he may have opened a way to reconquer the heart of the French people out of Holland’s toxic shadows.

Attention à Fillon!

With almost two months to go until the first round, a comeback from Fillon is still possible. The preliminary inquiry has recently been referred to a three judges which will carry out the investigation. The slowness of the procedure ensures that Fillon would not go to court before the first round. Despite the scandal, he is still seen as the most presidential of all the candidates and his base looks strong given that 61% of voters declaring their support say describe this as definitive. Fillon recently dined with Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president and presidential candidate he defeated in the primaries, no doubt to ask advice on how to campaign while under juridical scrutiny, an exercise in which Sarkozy excels. He may have also consulted him on how best to energise activists and to start playing up to the traditional rightwing theme of security, which Sarkozy successfully incarnated in his 2007 campaign.

Tout est possible! In what is the most contested French presidential election in recent years, anything can happen! The next two months will be decisive and if either Macron or Hamon plays their cards well, perhaps a progressive force will continue leading France for the next five years.