A Shakespearian twist is required, perhaps, to comprehend the astonishing scenario of moral laxity and personal enrichment, playing out currently in the Old World kingly court of French electoral politics.
Unless in a state of Lear-like delusion, de facto French Opposition leader François Fillon must know his refusal to step aside as the centre-right candidate at French presidential elections in April and May, reiterated at a press conference this week, benefits the far-right National Front (NF) candidate, Marine Le Pen.
Fillon, before the scandal the self-styled probity candidate and front-runner to face Le Pen in final round voting, is embroiled in a high-stakes drama of archaic family nepotism, called “Penelope Gate”, where the former Prime Minister plainly acknowledges he paid his Welsh wife Penelope and two of his offspring almost a million euros for work as parliamentary assistants.
The French justice system will decide whether the Fillons were in legal employment or defrauded taxpayers via “fictional jobs”, allegations Fillon père rigorously denies. But neither Fillon nor the heavyweights of Les Républicains party (LR) have disputed his tacit right to settle a fortune upon his wife and children so that they should live more handsomely.
At the press conference, Fillon offered a flimsy expression of remorse but no major act of penitence like pledging to repay the money or step aside for another LR candidate. Not a good look then for a politician who has pledged to cut half-a-million public service jobs and severely limit medical reimbursements for the sick and elderly of a country he once described as being “in a position of bankruptcy”.
If the spectacle of Trump’s rise can be read as negligence, Fillon’s refusal to withdraw looks like the arrogance of a would-be aristocrat intent on preserving the privileges of an antiquated political caste. As if the rise of populism never happened, Fillon appears deaf to its lessons, about inequality, unemployment and the squeeze on middle and lower class wages that gave us the Brexit vote and put a reality TV host in the White House.
The main beneficiary of Fillon’s folly? Madame Le Pen, beginning to look like a faux stability candidate in a decomposing party political landscape.
Even before the fraud allegations, Fillon’s opinion poll numbers were slipping as the Thatcherite austerity candidate in a country where free-market liberalism has never enjoyed a place in the sun. Left-winger Benoît Hamon, of the Socialist Party, is urging a vastly costly, basically discredited universal revenue measure when France is mired in debt.
A brand new candidate of the centre, Emmanuel Macron, 39, is a former Socialist Economy Minister calling himself neither right nor left with no party at all in the sense of an electoral machine with local parliamentarians (a neat illustration of the decomposing traditional structures).
If Fillon fails to make the second round and Macron faces Le Pen, she’ll likely open up to the mainstream right with a view to forming a grand coalition, provoking and inviting a fractured LR to join her against an upstart from the left. If Hamon against the odds wins through to the run-off (stealing votes away from the far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon), Le Pen is even more likely to be the next President of France.
I’m not saying that she will be, but it’s by no means far-fetched to suggest that she could be.
Add to this, uncertainty about Abstentionism and the fact that, by voter numbers the NF is now the first party of France (25 per cent at European elections in 2014; 28 per cent at regionals in 2015), and there are many reasons to be worried.
Fillon’s scandal has improved Le Pen’s electoral prospects whether she’s against him in round two or not, putting pressure on the glass ceiling of the so-called Republican Front — where people vote across party lines in the run-off to keep the pariah party out of office.
So the story is not that France might buck the populist trend of Trump and Brexit, but that it might not. With Le Pen poised at the gates of the Republic like a lion, or a hyena for those of us who fear the worst.
– Richard Ogier is a former Australian Embassy press attaché in Paris.