François Fillon, the candidate whose attempt to make himself the incarnation of virtue propelled him past his LR rivals Sarkozy (qui traînait des casseroles) and Juppé (ex-con for peculations not unlike those of which Fillon now stands accused), is sinking like a stone in the polls (h/t Arun Kapil). His decline began even before the scandal broke, as the harshness of his platform entered the consciousness of voters outside the LR circle and he began to backtrack on the more radical elements of his program, thus alienating even some within the circle. And then the scandal--the deliciously named Penelopegate (pronounced in French pen-uh-lopp-gate, which to the English ear lends a certain jocular touch to the whole business).
It's hard to see how Fillon escapes from this trap, since even if he can persuade investigators that his wife did in fact "faire des synthèses de l'actualité" for him while he was a deputy, his suppléant will have to explain why he continued to pay Penelope nearly 100,000 euros a year, far more than parliamentary assistants are normally paid, after Fillon became a minister.
En effet, il faut bien préciser : Mme Fillon a travaillé pour son mari en tant qu’assistante parlementaire entre 1998 et 2002. Puis, quand il est devenu ministre, elle est restée l’assistante de son suppléant, devenu député, M. Joulaud. C’est à ce moment que sa rémunération a atteint 7 900 euros brut, ce qui est très au-dessus du salaire standard des assistants. M. Joulaud est resté pour le moment très discret sur la réalité de ce travail et sur l’importance de la rémunération. C’est l’un des aspects les plus flous de cette affaire, que la justice devra élucider.And then there is the matter of the three book reviews she wrote for La Revue des deux mondes for another 100K (as a sometime book reviewer, I can attest that this is above the normal pay scale).
So Penelopegate is likely to have inversé la courbe of the Fillon meteor and brought it back down to earth.
Which leaves the presidential race where?
1. LR recognize the extent of the disaster, somehow manage to disencumber themselves of the candidate, and nominate, say, Juppé, who had been their best hope (?) to begin with. I don't even know if this can be done under the party by-laws, but it would saddle the replacement candidate, whoever it might be, with enormous baggage (of which Juppé has enough of his own). Or again, Fillon might voluntarily remove himself from the race (as he has said he would if he is mis en examen).
2. Fillon stays in, but his voters desert him in large numbers, mainly for Le Pen but some for Macron. The net result is likely to be a big boost for Le Pen in the first round.
3. Bayrou is tempted by Fillon's mortal wound to get into the race, creating even further chaos.
Meanwhile, the Socialist primary debate on Wednesday was of remarkably high quality. This has to be said, because until now I have been quite critical of Valls's apparent lack of preparation for the campaign. But on Wednesday he was excellent, in command of himself as well as his dossiers and demonstrating a gift for sustained argument and forensic skill not previously on display. But Hamon was also superb, adroitly defending his novel eco-socialism with studies and statistics galore. It may be that both men are campaigning not for the presidency but rather for the right to define the future of the Socialist Party, which is going to have to rebuild itself after the Hollande debacle. There were two sharply different visions of the party on display: a conventional party of government and responsibility rather more forcefully and articulately embodied by Valls than by Hollande, or an unconventional and even utopian party of conviction designed to govern a future of low-growth, increased leisure time, and ecological sensibility coupled with a barely adumbrated scheme for combining a modicum of redistributive justice with a multiplication of riches thanks to the genius of homo technologicus. If it all sounds rather farfelu, Hamon nevertheless made it seem almost seductive, while Valls managed to restrain his pugilistic instincts long enough to appear uncharacteristically warm if not altogether fuzzy. I could almost remember the days when I felt warmly about le Parti socialiste.
Another thing that emerged from the debate is that Macron will not be allowed to get away with the vagueness of his current program for very long. He will have to take on one or the other of these two Socialists at some point, and both showed themselves to be formidable debaters, who will not allow him to coast along behind his friendly face and appealing smile. Fillon's apparent collapse makes it clear that the left is not at all barred from making the second round against Le Pen. But it is still not clear which of the three elements of the left and center-left--Macron, the eventual PS candidate, or Mélenchon--will prove more effective in advancing the flag.
Penelopegate has suddenly changed the complexion of the race. And there may be still more surprises to come.