31 March 2017

Why Fillon could still win

By Tom Wheeldon

Common sense dictates that François Fillon has blown his chance of becoming the next President of France. His “Mr Clean” reputation helped win him last year’s Republican party primaries, and he rode the momentum of that victory until 25 January – when Penelopegate erupted.

The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné uncovered payments of half a million euros over 15 years to Fillon’s wife Penelope. They were supposedly for her work as his “parliamentary assistant”, but there is scant evidence that she did any such work.

As Anne-Elisabeth Moutet has chronicled for CapX, further scandalous details soon poured forth. It turned out that it was a million euros over a decade for Penelope Fillon. It turned out that a literary journal owned by one of France’s richest men paid Mme Fillon 100,000 euros to advise it, which resulted in her writing some 400 words. It turned out that his children were also paid handsomely for apparently negligible amounts of work. And it turned out that Fillon was given €48,500 worth of luxury suits from an anonymous “friend”.

His poll ratings nosedived. A month before Penelopegate he was the favourite – pollsters Ifop had him at 27.5 per cent in the first round and romping home with 64 per cent in a second-round showdown with Marine Le Pen. The week after the scandal broke, his rating slumped to 18.5 per cent. Anti-fraud police interviewed the couple separately for hours.

Fillon has been polling at around 17.5 per cent ever since. Emmanuel Macron – the standard-bearer for fashionable centrist liberalism – is now the clear favourite to see off Le Pen in the second round. And this week, judges summoned Penelope Fillon to court to answer accusations of fraud.

Fillon’s campaign seems doomed. Yet he has been underestimated before. Throughout the Republican primaries, polls had him in third place. Conventional wisdom had it that no politician wins anything in France by openly admiring Margaret Thatcher and proposing to restrict union practices, cut 500,000 civil servants, slash welfare spending and give businesses €50 billion worth of tax breaks.

Yet for legions of ordinary bourgeois French voters, this is exactly what they like about Fillon. They might not be doctrinaire neo-liberals; in many cases, Fillon’s provincial, middle-class supporters are Gaullists, traditionally sceptical towards Thatcherite capitalism.

But after years of economic sclerosis and familiar offerings from the Left and the Right, who promise change but leave a bloated state untouched, more French voters than ever before realise that the country needs harsh Thatcherite medicine.

A 2014 Le Monde poll found that 85 per cent of the French believe their country is in decline. More than three million people are unemployed. From 2008 to 2016, France’s economy grew by about 3 per cent – compared to 8 per cent in the UK and 10 per cent in the US.

On the face of it, after Penelopegate, Macron is the top candidate for economic change. It is significant that, as Hollande’s economy minister, he was behind the so-called Macron Law, which make it easier for employers to negotiate pay and hours, and to allow companies to expand their Sunday hours.

Yet Macron’s book “Revolution”, released last year, while an exquisite exercise in rhetoric, offers precious little in the way of policy proposals. That’s probably because his policy programme, launched last month, offers precious little in the way of revolution.

He would keep the notorious 35-hour working week. He would not raise the retirement age of 62 – ridiculously low in this day and age. And he would not get rid of the Mitterand-era wealth tax, which catches many bourgeois swing voters dragged above the payment threshold by soaring house prices.

Macron’s status as frontrunner is also more precarious than you might think. As Anne-Elisabeth Moutet noted, only 38 per cent of Macron supporters say they’re 100 per cent committed to voting for him. That figure is 60 per cent for Fillon.

But what about damage done by Penelopegate?

No doubt the scandal cost Fillon some support. There is, however, the “shy Tory” factor. Polls during the Republican primaries favoured the genial centrist Alain Juppé until Fillon’s resounding victory in the actual election.

It’s not hard to see why middle-class swing voters deciding between Fillon and Macron but leaning towards the former might tell pollsters they favour the trendy, charismatic youngster over the scandal-hit Republican.

But in the privacy of the ballot box, how much do most potential Fillon voters really care about his financial scandals? To put it bluntly, the idea of a President with dodgy financial dealings does not exactly strike the French as outré. The nation’s economy is a far more important consideration.

Fillon is, of course, not just up against Macron. Marine Le Pen has a consistent poll lead, at least in the first round. No doubt the Front National candidate will pile up votes among the white working class – formerly the backbone of the Socialist and Communist parties.

But her eye-watering economic policies will surely alienate those with something to lose. The euro may well have been a terrible idea, but Le Pen’s signature proposal to leave it is terrifying to many voters: some 72 per cent oppose such a move. And her other proposals, which include actively reducing foreign investment and taxing companies employing foreign nationals, do not look an awful lot like pro-growth policies.

Le Pen is seen as strong on immigration, crime, terror and security – and the attacks of the past two years have boosted her support. Yet Fillon has also pitched his tent on this ground since the primaries, promising to curb immigration and “conquer Islamic totalitarianism”.

It is unclear if European voters actually want populists such as Le Pen in charge, even if they agree with much of what they say. The UK voted for Brexit, but never for UKIP to implement it. Dutch voters favour tough stances on immigration and integration. But ultimately they went for the staid conservative Mark Rutte instead of the far-right firebrand Geert Wilders.

And the economy is still the crucial factor. The rise of national corporatists like Trump and Le Pen has caused many commentators to argue that 1980s-style neoliberalism has had its day. But the history of neoliberalism in France hasn’t really started yet.

Even in these populist times, popular capitalism remains an election-winning formula: David Cameron’s traditional appeal to aspiration won over the same electorate that voted for Brexit the following year.

Fillon’s financial scandals have hit his campaign hard. But don’t write him off. He is the only candidate prepared to tackle France’s economic malaise – and for the country’s aspirational middle class, that may well be the winning factor.

Tom Wheeldon works for Radio France Internationale in Paris