In recent weeks, French presidential hopeful Francois Fillon has seen his poll numbers plummet in the wake of a nepotism scandal involving his wife. After earlier threatening to drop his candidacy if formally investigated, the conservative candidate is now standing his ground, arguing that the inquiry against him is illegal and should be dropped. Reuters:
French presidential candidate Francois Fillon struck back on Thursday over the scandal sapping his campaign, calling for fraud investigators to drop their inquiry into the “fake jobs” affair.
Lawyers for Fillon, once a frontrunner to win election in May but now a third-placed loser according to opinion polls, publicly denounced the financial prosecutor’s inquiry into misuse of public funds as illegal and questioned the impartiality of its investigators.
The scandal involves mainly his wife, Penelope, who a satirical weekly said received almost a million euros ($1.07 million) for work as a parliamentary assistant and literary reviewer – work, it said, she did not properly carry out. […]
The charge continues to dog his campaign and opinion polls in the past 24 hours have shown his poor ratings persisting, despite a combative news conference on Monday when he relaunched his campaign.
What is Fillon thinking? The scandal has done serious damage to his carefully crafted image as a man of integrity who would restore high ethical standards to the Elysée. And there has been growing pressure, including from Fillon’s fellow Republicans, to drop out of the race. Current polls show that Fillon would lose in the first round of voting, paving the way for a run-off between the far-right Marine Le Pen and the surging independent candidate Emmanuel Macron.
But dig a little deeper, and Fillon’s decision to stand his ground makes some sense. For one, there is no easy mechanism to replace him within his party. Official registration for candidates closes in mid-March, and there are no obvious replacements ready to take on the Republicans’ mantle at such short notice. Alain Juppé, whom Fillon defeated in the center-right primaries last year, has already ruled out that possibility, while former President Nicolas Sarkozy is embroiled in his own corruption controversy over campaign finances. Under such circumstances, entering a chaotic last-minute process to field an untested candidate could diminish the Republicans’ prospects even further.
Fillon’s calculation seems to be that he can wait out the storm until the voters come around. Before the scandal hit, he was the clear favorite to win, and his core priorities—including immigration, security, and unemployment—still retain great appeal among French voters. In fact, Fillon seems to fear that Le Pen would ride those issues to victory in his absence. “You think Macron will prevail against Le Pen if I am not a candidate? Absolutely not,” said Fillon to Le Monde. “My voters will go to Marine Le Pen. There would be an enormous anger from people on the right who saw themselves deprived of their candidate.”
For all these reasons, then, Fillon seems to believe that pressing on despite the scandal will pay off. It’s a risky gamble, but in an unpredictable race where Fillon already outperformed expectations in the primary, he could yet be vindicated in feeling lucky.