So the French authorities have finally realized they were going to have to shit or get off the pot. And it looks like they’ve chosen the former course of action and are formally charging Francois Fillon. The circumstances in which the charges are being filed stink and look to be designed to force him to withdraw from the race for the Presidency.
Last week, state prosecutors said they were handing over responsibility for the case to investigating magistrates, which suggested it would be put on a slow burner, a boost to his campaign. The judges, instead, moved swiftly.
Mr Fillon, who has always denied wrongdoing, said he had been told he would be put under formal investigation on March 15 — two days before the deadline for registering as a candidate in the election.
The message seems pretty clear – “If you don’t drop out you’re going to face criminal charges. Leave now and the investigation will disappear.”
Now perhaps the authorities have assembled a persuasive legal case, but the fact that they’ve been litigating it in public for the past several weeks and the suspicious timetable for laying charges suggest to me that the whole case is more bark than bite. Fillon seems intent on calling their bluff.
As a strategy for getting rid of Fillon in order to replace with a more acceptable centre-right candidate, or to clear the way for Emmanuel Macron, this seems pretty risky. If Fillon refuses to step down then the authorities will have to decide whether they want to charge him or not. If they charge him and he’s subsequently acquitted, then the French justice system is going to be faced with accusations of railroading a Presidential candidate in order to swing the election. If they choose to play it safe and decide not to charge him, Fillon will be able to claim vindication and may be able to go on to salvage his election campaign.
And neither course guarantees a victory for Macron. It’s entirely possible that whatever happens from hereon in, if he doesn’t make it through to the second round, Fillon may decide to pay the establishment back and throw his support behind Marine Le Pen who coincidentally has also come under a similar investigation. His rhetoric certainly suggests he might.