Why Penelopegate is a catastrophe for France

With the Socialist primary out of the way, the presidential field is now close to complete, with the exception of François Bayrou, the historical candidate of the center, who should announced this week whether he decides to run or not, in a political space largely occupied by Emmanuel Macron. The upcoming weekend will be shaped by some political heavyweights converging in Lyon for parallel rallies: Marine Le Pen will officially declare her candidacy and present her program, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Emmanuel Macron will hold their largest rallies of the campaign (bonus points to Mélenchon for simulcasting his rally in Paris with the presence of … his hologram).

However, all eyes will remain fixated on François Fillon, the conservative candidate, who is more than ever deeply embroiled in the controversy that his wife held a fictitious job as his parliamentary assistant and that he gave his lawyer children consultancy work before they were sworn in to the bar. The unity in the conservative family is crumbling and the defense strategy put in place convinces no one, including his rag-tag spokesperson team. The accusations of misogyny, and of complaining that Fillon is paying for all the excesses committed by him and others, do not even start to address the key question of whether or not his wife was paid (largely over the standards) for a job she didn’t do. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the conservative party has started floating around names in the press to see which ones stick, in case Fillon needed to be prophylactically exfiltrated from the race.

Besides this short-term issues and whether the right may actually be losing, against all odds, the presidential race (as recent polling suggests), the affairs Fillon is chest-deep in create real long term problems for the exercise of the presidency and for what can be achieved during the next term.

If Fillon were to win the election, and in order for him to have a mandate to implement his reforms, his victory needs to be uncontested. Fillon and France cannot be content with barely making it to the second round with a score below 25% and a humiliating second place behind Marine Le Pen. Fillon needs a margin of victory in the first round that will show that there is no doubt about the direction voters want the country to take — that is, a score close to 35%, and largely more than 65 or even 70% in the second round. The latest polls — which are, let’s remind ourselves of this, a mere photography — give Fillon 22% in the first round, barely making it over Macron; in the second round, he would win against Le Pen by 60–40 but lose versus Macron 58–42.

Any scenario where Fillon wins, given the dynamics of the moment, make him a weak president who won’t have the mandate to carry out the reforms that made the conservative “silent majority” vote for him in the party primary. In a Fifth Republic where the last two presidents have both redefined the exercise of the presidency with detrimental consequences, a weak Fillon may be the closest thing we have to the end of a system. This campaign needed to be clean and needed to put forward mainstream party candidates with clean records, a wish now blown out of the water by Fillon. Reforms will be immediately contested, especially by a virulent Le Pen, and the trade unions and other civil society groups will take to the streets like rarely before to block the reforms. Long story short, this is the recipe for Le Pen 2022 (Marine or Marion, pick your poison).

The other scenario is a Macron win. An energized base and French people excited to see a new face carries him to an unexpected win with a wider margin than predicted against either Le Pen or Fillon. What happens next? Macron will face pressure to bring clarity to his “both left and right” line and will need to negotiate the hurdle of legislative elections in June. How can Macron (and his eventual Prime Minister) lead the country with a majority that regroups socialist MPs who defected, some centrist figureheads who left the sinking Fillon ship, and new MPs from various walks of life (so-called “civil society” candidates)? Where will the balance of this majority lie, and how can a Macron/Prime Minister tbd create a coherent political platform that not only satisfies the voters but also is palatable to this group of MPs from various political backgrounds? The political line Macron will walk on will be as thin as Trump’s skin; in such a scenario, political instability could reign as high as ever in France and Macron consume a large amount of Prime Ministers that correspond to the political line of the moment. France may not be able to get over Italian-style political blockades in a constitutional system that is not designed for it.

The doomsday scenario of a Le Pen win, buoyed by Fillon’s affairs and untouched by hers (she owes upwards of 340 000€ to the European Parliament — but it’s the EU, so no one will defend it, even itself), with an electorate dubious of whether Macron has the mettle to make a good president, is of course not excluded. Studies indicate that Le Pen is hitting the glass ceiling in terms of electorate, both in terms of voters willing to cross over to her, but also with the fact that her voters are the ones who by a crushing majority are sure that they will vote for her, automatically making her reserves smaller. This page explored earlier the risks of immediate institutional crisis that a Le Pen presidency would trigger, and the warning remains as true as ever.

France needed moral probity in 2017. The only hope to get the campaign back on track is for the judicial body to make a quick decision on whether Fillon deserves an indictment in Penelopegate. He promised he would step down if that were the case, and any other decision on his behalf would be a moral fault of epic proportions, not only for the conservative party but also for France.

Martin M.