The luck of the centrist, as I called it last month, continues. Emmanuel Macron is now a firm favorite to be the next president of France, with the news that his centre-right rival, François Fillon, is under formal judicial investigation on the corruption charges that have plagued him since the beginning of the year.
Fillon had previously indicated that such a move would end his campaign, only to change his mind in mid-February. Now his position is that the verdict of the electorate is superior to that of the judges, and that the investigation is an attack on democracy – a “political assassination”, he called it.
The far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon responded (on Twitter) that Fillon seemed to be asking the country to vote him immunity, and that “this is not the point of the election.”
Meanwhile, Macron has not put a foot wrong. Last week he secured the support of the veteran centrist leader François Bayrou, who has given up his dream of becoming president (he came a close third in 2007 with 18.6%) but may well hope to be in line to be prime minister under Macron.
For many years the political centre in France, potentially so strong, has been fragmented. There is the Left Radical Party (PRG), which operates in alliance with the Socialists; Bayrou’s MoDem, which has oscillated between centre-left and centre-right; and the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI), which co-operates with the centre-right Republicans. But UDI leader Jean-Christophe Lagarde has announced that his party is suspending its involvement with the Fillon campaign, and if the current trend continues it seems likely that much of its base will migrate to Macron.
Winning the presidency would be only half the battle for Macron; he also needs to somehow put together a parliamentary majority to support his government. For that, he will need the various centrist forces to work together.
Time is running out for either the Republicans or the UDI to come up with an alternative candidate. Nominations for the presidency officially opened last Saturday; candidates have until March 17 to collect the signatures of 500 elected officials (mostly local councillors – they also need to have a prescribed geographic spread) in order to appear on the ballot paper.
For the five front-runners – Macron, Fillon, Mélenchon, Socialist Benoît Hamon and the far right’s Marine Le Pen – that will pose no trouble. A few also-rans will probably scrape up enough signatures to join them. But to get the support together for a centre-right replacement for Fillon, things would have to move fast. As Le Monde’s political editor Nicolas Chapuis put it, “time is on his side.”
The latest polls now have Macron clear of Fillon and only a point or two behind Le Pen in the first round. A first-round victory for him would be icing on the cake; symbolically important but by no means necessary (he leads Le Pen by up to 25 points in runoff polls). Sportsbet now puts him at better than even money; Le Pen is at 7-4 and Fillon has blown right out to 5-1.
Hamon is languishing a distant fourth in the mid-teens, not far ahead of Mélenchon. If the two could combine their vote they would have a chance of making the second round, but Mélenchon has resisted any suggestion that he might pull out. The best Hamon has been able to achieve is an accord with Greens candidate Yannick Jadot, but his support is only worth a couple of points.
And any move by Hamon to reach out leftwards just increases the murmurings within the social democratic wing of his own party, many of whom would be more comfortable supporting Macron. But as long as Fillon seems to be destroying himself anyway, there’s less pressure for them to jump ship; if the prospect of a Le Pen/Fillon runoff recedes, then it becomes tactically better for them to pose as loyal Socialists, letting Hamon and the left take all the blame.
So it looks as if France is headed for a centrist presidency and a serious upending of the party system. But with more than two months to go, there may still be some more twists and turns in the tale.