'One cannot govern France,' declared François Fillon last November, 'if one is not irreproachable.' A little over three months later, however, and the centre-right candidate for next month's French presidential candidate has had a change of heart.
The 62-year-old has today announced that he will be placed under formal investigation over allegations that during a period of several years he fictitiously employed three members of his family on lucrative salaries. François Fillon and his Welsh wife Penelope have been summoned by magistrates to answer the charges on 15 March, two days before the registration deadline for presidential candidates. Fillon says it is clearly a politically-motivated decision. 'From the start, I have not been treated like anyone else facing the justice system,' he said at a press conference today. 'It's a political assassination...I will not withdraw.' Asked why not, Fillon replied: 'It's not just me they are killing, but the French presidential election.'
Nonetheless, Fillon's pledge to continue standing as the candidate for Les Républicains' has prompted Bruno Le Maire - one of the six candidates Fillon beat for the nomination in November's primary election - to resign from the party. 'I believe in respecting one’s word,' said Le Maire. 'In keeping with my principles, I therefore resign from my duties.' This was followed by resignations from three other Républicains.
Le Maire was referring to Fillon's promise made in January that if charged with any wrongdoing he would withdraw from the campaign. It was part of a string of statements made by Fillon over several months, in which he tried to convey to the weary French public an image of probity and transparency. His two main rivals for the centre-right nomination, Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, were both tainted with corruption. Fillon's squeaky-clean image as the devout Catholic and devoted family man struck a chord with conservative France. 'Who could imagine General de Gaulle indicted?' he asked, cleverly comparing himself with the austere wartime leader who remains a hero for the French right.
That facade was fractured when the allegations broke earlier this year. Although Fillon has recently begun to climb back up the opinion polls, today's announcement could permanently derail his campaign. He will hope his supporters share his belief that it is a 'political assassination', a claim that drew a swift response this afternoon. 'Magistrates receive no individual instruction, from whoever it might be,' said a statement released by the Ministry of Justice. 'They make their decisions with their soul and their conscience and in respect of the law.' President François Hollande also weighed in, warning Fillon of 'making extremely grave accusations against the judiciary and more broadly, our institutions'. But one of Fillon's political rivals, François Bayrou, who has recently offered his support to Emmanuel Macron, cast doubt on the timing of the charges, asking 'for fresh guarantees on political practices'.
Fillon's supporters have been quick to rally round, with Le Figaro reporting that a march is already being planned in Paris for Sunday. So for the time being Fillon fights on, confident that he remains the only candidate who has the experience, the ideas and the inspiration to lead France from its slumber. 'It’s for the French people, those who follow me and those who fight me, only universal suffrage can decide who will be the next president of the republic,' he said on Wednesday. 'I will not give up … I ask you to follow me.'
So all in all, another rancorous and divisive day in the presidential campaign, one that will leave voters more disgusted than ever with their politicians. But which of Fillon's two main rivals in the presidential race will gain most from his plight?
Emmanuel Macron's economic programme is more in tune with Fillon's than Marine Le Pen's, and like Fillon he is pro-EU, but the 39-year-old former investment banker served in Hollande's government and is considered lightweight on immigration and law and order. Last month he angered conservatives by describing France's colonisation of Algeria as a 'crime against humanity'.
Marine Le Pen, who has so far not commented publicly on Fillon's press statement, is also accused of creating fictitious jobs, although in her case it concerns EU money. In addition, the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee voted yesterday to waive her immunity to allow French prosecutors to investigate her for tweeting gruesome images of Isis killings. It was a crass decision by the EU, reinforcing the belief among many in France that Brussels and Paris are determined to do everything in their power to undermine Le Pen's campaign.
But unlike Fillon, mud doesn't seem to stick to the leader of the National Front. The more that is thrown at Le Pen by Europe's political elite between now and the election, the more likely it is that disenchanted voters will side with her anti-establishment politics.