Marine Le Pen must be struggling to contain her glee at the implosion of the centre-right Républicains party. An extraordinary 24 hours began on Sunday when François Fillon assembled his supporters in the torrential Parisian rain to reaffirm his intention to stand as their candidate in next month’s election. The former Prime Minister then appeared on TV yesterday evening to confess to his errors but reiterate that he is best placed in his party to defeat Le Pen’s National Front.
Lurking in the background, however, as Fillon spoke live on television, was Alain Juppé, who many expected to present himself on Monday as the Républicains’ Plan B. Instead, the 72-year-old declared he would not accede to the growing clamour to challenge Fillon. ‘I confirm, once and for all, that I will not be a candidate in the election for the presidency of the republic’, Juppé announced on Monday in a speech laced with bitterness. He sarcastically thanked those within his party who had turned to him as their saviour in recent days, having attacked his manifesto during November’s centre-right primary, in which he was resoundingly beaten by Fillon.
Harking back to that victory, Juppé described how the road to the presidency stretched before Fillon after his victory but he had wasted his opportunity and instead led the party through his ‘obstinacy’ into ‘an impasse’. Juppé also attacked Fillon’s supporters, an estimated 50,000 of whom gathered in Paris to cheer for their man, accusing them of being ‘too radicalised’. Juppé’s use of the word ‘radicalised’ was carefully chosen. During campaigning in November’s primary, Fillon’s supporters gave Juppé no quarter, accusing the mayor of Bordeaux of being too old, too moderate, and too soft. Worse, they gave him a nickname on account of his support in 2008 for the construction of a large mosque in Bordeaux – Ali Juppé, the grand mufti of Bordeaux.
Old he may be, but Juppé is also a vastly experienced politician who understands something that few of his conservative peers seem to have grasped: namely, that hundreds of thousands of Fillon supporters will never forgive their party if they oust their candidate from the presidential race. They braved the Parisian rain on Sunday to support Fillon, waving their tricolores, chanting his name, and telling the media what would happen if Fillon was ousted. ‘If Fillon goes many among us will vote for the extreme [right]’, one warned, while another told the politicians who have deserted Fillon to stop meddling because ‘we’re the voters and it’s up to us to decide’. There was also plenty of anger reserved for the judiciary and the mainstream media, with one voter exclaiming:
‘The judges, the press, the government want to prevent us from voting for [who] we want to vote for’.
There is perhaps a touch of fanaticism about Fillon’s supporters, and they are willing to overlook his transgressions because of it. In the eyes of the liberal press they are the Gallic equivalent of Little Englanders, hard-working men and women, who go to church, love their country and despise political correctness. In Fillon they believe they have found their leader, the man to cure the economy and confront radical Islam, and they will brook no alternative. ‘More than three million of us voted for Fillon in November’, declared one 70-year-old man. ‘If it’s Juppé , I tell you loud and clear, we will vote for Le Pen and it’s she who will win’.
Juppé has sensed the mood and withdrawn, but there is still a misguided belief among many within the Republicain party that an alternative to Fillon must be found. What they don’t understand is that one already has in that event, and her name is Marine Le Pen.