PARIS — Political junkies everywhere are getting used to the rush of watching election campaigns defy the laws of physics. Just a few weeks ago, the path looked all clear for François Fillon to become the next French President in the vote later this spring. By yesterday, the former center-right Prime Minister looked to be barely hanging on to his candidacy, even seeming to confirm that his chances had been killed by the “Penelopegate” scandal, calling the deepening judicial probe into the hiring of his wife, “a political assassination."
But Fillon is not dead yet. And the victories of the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump should teach us all the imperative of stretching our imagination. Though considered a mostly staid and conservative figure through his career, Fillon seems to thrive in taking on the role of victim of prosecutors and the press. A similar strategy helped him win the center-right party's primary election in November, gaining momentum after accusing the media of trying to decide the outcome for the voters by emphasizing that it was a two-man race between a pair of other candidates. His underdog message resonated with a significant part of the electorate.
In France, as in other Western countries, there's growing hostility toward the media. A recent study on the French public's trust towards the country's institutions showed that only 24% trust the media and journalists. Also noteworthy is the level of trust towards the justice system: just 44%.
Though centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron has been rising in the polls, the original “pre-Penelopegate” scenario could still come to pass in the two-round election — but with a twist. The failure of the outgoing center-left government and general rightward shift of the electorate may still mean that Fillon and nationalist right-wing leader Marine Le Pen are the two survivors of the first round of voting. Before the drama of his legal troubles, Fillon would have been considered the favored establishment choice in the runoff, with Le Pen using her own longstanding battles with the media and magistrates as the firebrand outsider. Now a Fillon-Le Pen showdown would be a contest of two candidates running hard against the establishment. Defying the laws of physics indeed.