Optimism is important in such circumstances – one imagines that even Benoît Hamon occasionally lies in bed at night imagining how he would re-shape France “when” he wins – but this was a brave statement. There are good reasons why M. Fillon, whose record of probity, his unflashiness and his statesmanlike demeanour helped him beat both Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy in the primaries, has slumped from first to third in the polls. As well as putting his family on the state payroll in return for a negligible amount of actual work, he benefited from wardrobe enhancements from well-wishers and had a company that took a facilitation fee for fixing up chats with the Russians. Such an ocean of sleaze does not, to put it mildly, look good.
But: France is used to electing politicians who have done far worse than M. Fillon. Also, in the first presidential debate he looked remarkably, well, presidential. He certainly had the only economic policy that would give France a chance of competing in an increasingly harsh and ugly world and promises the start of the restructuring the French economy badly needs – a transfer of scarce resources from the public to the private sector by slimming down the enormous state salariat. But with an apparently full-time team somewhere throwing the merde
at him, M. Fillon – who also claims a secret black arts unit is listening in to his phone calls and answering direct to President Hollande – is going to have to rely on more than his own abilities to get into power. He needs one of his opponents to go seriously wrong to provide the opening for him.
No-one expects Marine Le Pen to fail to make the second round. Her politics may be toxic to many, but they are commanding an increasingly large following and in her campaign she has hardly put a foot wrong.
Therefore M. Fillon’s only hope is the implosion of Emmanuel Macron, the risen-from-nowhere former finance minister in the Hollande administration. Which one of them would be the better opponent for Mme Le Pen is a question that must be dealt with next month, when we know for sure who the last two are; but for the moment, all the Fillon camp’s guns must be trained on the centrist, and their hopes of a mistake concentrated upon him.
While M. Macron was fluent in the debate he seemed on difficult ground when the question of anti-terrorism was discussed, trying to preserve his natural anti-authoritarian instincts that much of France seems not to share. But as well as saying he wants to cut €60 billion out of the budget over five years, mainly by cutting jobs, he also plans a €50 billion investment programme. He plans a programme of personal and corporate tax reforms that have little obvious coherence to them, in that they could pile costs on some taxpayers in order to alleviate the burden on others. He also promises to reform no tax more than once in his quinquennat, which severely restricts his room for manoeuvre.
He is also promising to fund a renovation and building programme for housing and to improve funding for schools. Aware of his perceived weakness on law and order and national security, he also promises a big prison-building programme and, at the same time as slashing the public payroll, a recruitment of 10,000 police officers and an increase in defence spending. It remains unclear where all the extra cash this would absorb is supposed to come from.
If M. Fillon can concentrate on attacking M. Macron rather than having to defend himself he is well-placed to point out the economic absurdities of his programme, absurdities in some cases not far removed from those of the disastrous incumbent president. That, though, is a big “if”. Where Mme Le Pen might make more headway with him is in his commitment to keep France’s borders open to free movement of people – despite the widespread view that this allows the easy importation of terrorism – and his suggestion that the eurozone should have its own finance ministry, at a time when public opinion seems to be finding the idea of economic sovereignty increasingly attractive.
M. Macron reminds me of Tony Blair before he became prime minister, with two important provisos. The first is that although M. Macron has had a brief spell of ministerial experience, and Mr Blair had none before becoming head of government, Mr Blair had served for over a decade on the Labour front bench before taking office. He had far more political experience than M. Macron and was better able to cope with the rough-and-tumble of politics. If either the Front National or Les Républicains turn their fire on him in a serious fashion – which neither has yet – he could struggle to convince.
The second is that Mr Blair had a serious, long-standing party and party machine behind him. M. Macron has his En Marche! confection. It may be enough to get him elected, but what his opponents should point out is that it certainly won’t be enough to support him in government.
The combination of that and his inexperience could prove catastrophic if he is in power, and it is a potential weakness his opponents should be highlighting.
Mme Le Pen may think she can save all her energies until the last fortnight of the contest, and she is almost certainly right: I have no doubt that the assault on whomever is her opponent will owe nothing to the Queensberry Rules.
But unless M. Fillon takes M. Macron to pieces before the first round, he won’t ever know what a second round feels like.
Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs