Fillon's French Follies
For many art critics, Auguste Rodin’s most successful public sculpture is the “Burghers of Calais.” The work captures the moment, occurring in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, when six prominent citizens left their besieged city to surrender to the English. Their facial and bodily expressions convey nearly unbearable tragedy. Heads bowed and feet bare, with loose ropes tied around their necks, the half-dozen despairing men fully expected King Edward III to sentence them to death.
The French have recently witnessed a similar scene, one unfolding on the country’s political stage. Whether it ends in tragedy, or instead in farce, remains to be seen.
For those who watched the conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon’s public address on March 1, Rodin’s sculpture might well have come to mind. Fillon made his appearance upon learning, along with the rest of France, that the courts would open a full judicial inquiry into “Penelopegate.” This is the moniker given to the seemingly never-ending story of how Fillon’s wife Penelope profited royally from a position as her husband’s parliamentary assistant -- a position, it appears, that entailed little more than opening his mail and reading the occasional speech. The problem for the Fillons is that while French politicians can legally hire family members, they cannot legally pay them from public monies for work they are only pretending to do.
Before Fillon stepped in front of the microphone that night, several leading members of his party, Les Republicains, preceded him. As they gathered uneasily to one side, all that was missing in order for them to pass as Rodin’s burghers were the bare feet and dangling ropes. Ill at ease and sadly gauche for right-wing notables, they already knew their fate. The rumors that had been swirling that Fillon would step aside as Les Republicains’ candidate turned out to be only that: rumors. Instead, denouncing what he called a political assassination, Fillon announced he was in the race to stay and exited without taking questions.
For the knot of notables Fillon had herded on stage, their man was announcing not just his own imminent beheading, but that of his party as well. During the 40 days since the scandal first erupted, polls tracking Fillon had shown him in full free-fall. By March 6, a Harris poll revealed that fewer than 30 percent of French voters believed Fillon should remain in the race, while only 17 percent planned to vote for him. These numbers strike a stark contrast to the great surge in Fillon’s candidacy during the Republicains primary last November, when he won over 66 percent of votes. No doubt the Republicain leadership were mulling these poll numbers as they smiled wanly at the end of Fillon’s statement.
The Harris poll, even more tellingly, was published after a remarkable event took place the preceding day. On March 5, catching a political Hail Mary pass heaved a few days earlier by Fillon, between 30,000 to 40,000 tricolore-waving supporters showed up at the Trocadero in Paris. Under a pelting rain, they cheered Fillon as he lambasted those Republicains -- like his spokesperson Thierry Solere, campaign director Patrick Stephanini, and dozens of party luminaries like Christian Estrosi and Georges Fenech -- who had quit his campaign and urged their colleagues to choose a replacement candidate. Though Fillon dropped the earlier claims of being the victim of a political assassination or a judicial coup d’état, he made clear yet again that he represented an electorate whose voice risked being silenced by entrenched political and institutional powers. “They attack me everywhere and I must, in conscience, listen to you, this immense crowd pushing me on.”
Fillon’s team insisted the “immense crowd” numbered at least 300,000 -- a Trumpian claim flying in the face of physics: the Place de la Trocadero, which was not entirely filled, can contain no more than 40,000 people. Nevertheless, the 40,000 who did show up -- largely mobilized and bussed to Paris by Sens Commun, an arch-conservative and Catholic organization -- were enough to make Fillon’s gamble pay off. At a high-stakes summit meeting in Paris, Fillon forced the party elders again to don their rope neckties. Expressing their “unanimous” support for the man for whom, until then, they had been desperately trying to replace with a so-called Plan B, the elders declared: “There is no Plan B.”
This was less a clarion call to arms than a collective confession of impotence. Having failed to impose a Plan B, the party leadership instead fell back on “Système D”: the national knack to improvise or wing it -- debrouiller is the uniquely French verb -- by less than scrupulous means if needed. This might well spell disaster not just for the party, but also the country. Fillon’s colleagues seem less preoccupied by either the charges of corruption or Fillon’s dizzying inconsistencies.
Fillon had once presented himself as Mr. Clean. Looking askance at the legal ennuis of his fraternal enemies Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppe, Fillon insisted that “only someone who is irreproachable can lead France” and promised that, should he ever be the object of a police investigation, he we quit his campaign.
And yet the party now finds itself led by a man who is neither irreproachable nor consistent. The next six weeks will reveal how this plays in the first round of the election. We will need to wait a bit longer to see how it plays out for France’s republican institutions. Michel Winock, one of France’s great political historians, described as unprecedented Fillon’s decision to mobilize his followers to challenge the courts. “It is one thing to call them to the voting booths, quite another to call them to the streets.” Winock recalled a fundamental principle of a true republic: the will of voters cannot trump the principles of law.
With Fillon’s sudden populist turn, French voters now confront a possible future not unlike our own. The question, for these sister republics, is whether their constitutional foundations will prove greater than these populist threats.