1 March 2017

“It is the French people and them alone that I appeal to now.”

“Only universal suffrage, and not an investigation, can decide who will be the next President of the Republic. I will not give in, I will not yield, I will not pull out. I ask you to follow me.”

“Many of my supporters speak of a political assassination. It is an assassination […] but it is not just me that they are assassinating, it is the [French] presidential election.”

This is what French conservative candidate François Fillon just told the press in Paris to announce that he will not pull out of the presidential election despite the on-going probe involving him and his family. The rumour mill was in full swing since earlier this morning, when the news broke that Fillon had abruptly postponed until further notice a visit to the Salon de l’Agriculture – a huge farm fair in the French capital.

Everyone who is familiar with French politics will know how important it is for presidential hopefuls to take part in these events in order to lure the farmers’ vote. Front National leader Marine Le Pen paid her own visit to the fair yesterday, and proudly tweeted a picture of her with “a superb cow of Brittany.”

In other words, the surprise postponement of Fillon’s appearance at the Salon de l’Agriculture suggested something big was happening. And so it was. For background, Fillon is currently involved in a judicial inquiry into whether he paid his Welsh-born wife Penelope hundreds of thousands of euros of public funds in total over several years for a ‘fictitious job’ as his parliamentary assistant.

As Fillon himself confirmed during his presser, he has today been summoned by examining magistrates for questioning on March 15 – with a view to being placed under formal investigation (mise en examen, which does not necessarily lead to formal charges). There was feverish speculation this would prompt Fillon to give up on his presidential bid, but he pledged to fight on instead.

Can Fillon still snatch the French presidency?

Fillon’s choice is perfectly legitimate. The investigation is under way, and everybody is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Nonetheless, there are two reasons why I believe events over the past few weeks may have done irreparable damage to Fillon’s presidential bid.

Firstly, and more generally, he had made integrity a centrepiece of his campaign message. In a thinly-veiled attack on Nicolas Sarkozy, who was also running for centre-right presidential nomination last year and was targeted by several judicial probes, Fillon once famously told a rally, “Who can imagine General De Gaulle put under investigation?” Secondly, and more specifically, Fillon had initially pledged to pull out of the race if placed under formal investigation. He has now openly broken his promise, and this will certainly come back to haunt him throughout the presidential campaign.

Fillon’s message today had some clear echoes of classic Gaullism – particularly when it came to seeking a direct link between the political leader and voters, who hold the ultimate power of decision. Crucially, however, that was accompanied by a Berlusconi-style charge on judges – with Fillon essentially suggesting the investigation has been timed to undermine his campaign. This type of language may well create unease within his own Les Républicains party.

Can Fillon still snatch the keys of the Élysée Palace come May? It is too early to tell, although recent opinion polls are pretty much unanimous in predicting he would not make it to the second round of the presidential election – where Le Pen is now widely expected to face former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron.

With today’s presser, Fillon has therefore gone all-in to try and put his campaign back on track. The deadline to submit candidacies to the French Constitutional Court expires on Friday 17 March. Should Fillon change his mind in the coming days, he would leave his party with very little time to find a substitute.