It’s hard not to feel for François Fillon, the French presidential hopeful whose career is now imploding. He looked destined for the Élysée Palace — until Le Canard Enchainé, the French equivalent of Private Eye, broke the story about him paying his British wife too much to pretend to be his assistant. Sensible, small c conservative, Catholic France had fallen for him, and he was regarded as the perfect moderate alternative to Marine Le Pen. It’s true he had been called ‘Thatcherite’, which is quite poisonous in France, but he could have survived that.
With this scandal, which seems small beer by French standards, the wolves are out to get him. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president and one of the men he beat to be presidential nominee for Les Republicains, is said to be ‘glowing with pleasure’ at his demise. And his supposed allies are now saying he should make way for another candidate — someone like Alain Juppé or perhaps Francois Baroin. He could make a remarkable comeback, but few analysts in France now think that is possible.
Fillon’s fall begs the question: can any ‘establishment’ candidate win anywhere? Can anybody who is attached to a major political party — even one that has been rebranded, such as LR — survive these fiercely anti-political times? The centrist answer for France might be Emmanuel Macron, who is the subject of a fascinating profile by Patrick Marnham in this week’s magazine. Macron is the insider’s outsider — a man who is rebranding himself as a new force in politics when he is actually a prime example of the ‘enarchie’ — the narrow caste of highly intelligent graduates from L’École Nationale d’Administration who are thought to rule France.
Macron is enjoying his moment: polls now suggest he’ll make the run off against Le Pen and win. But polls are fickle and so are voters. Do the French really have the stomach for such an alpha-énarque. He’s a former banker to boot. It’s easy to see his star fading — and if the centre-right cannot find a brilliant alternative to Fillon, and quickly, the odds on a Le Pen presidency will continue to shrink.