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François Fillon: from election favourite to also-ran

Lionel Bonaventure / AFP | François Fillon delivers a speech at his campaign headquarters in Paris, on April 23, 2017, after the first round of the presidential election.

France's main right-wing political party suffered a historic defeat in the first round of Sunday's presidential election, made all the more remarkable by the fact that their candidate, François Fillon, had been favourite to win just months earlier.


The 63-year-old former prime minister secured just under 20 percent of the vote, according to projected results, putting him behind the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and out of the second round run-off for the presidency.

The defeat was a severe blow to his party, Les Républicains, marking the first time since 1958 and the creation of the French Fifth Republic that there will be no representative from the country's main centre-right right party in the second round.

It is also a defeat that just a few months ago few would have seen coming.

'A fight which the right could not lose'

After clinching the nomination for the Les Républicains in November by presenting himself as unsullied by the scandals that surrounded his rival and former boss, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon had been tipped by many to be France's next president.

Polls showed a easy Fillon victory in the second round against Le Pen as the most likely outcome. But a series of scandals of Fillon's own brought that early confidence to an abrupt end.

"It was said to be a fight which the right could not lose, and which has ended in a lamentable fiasco," said Jean-François Copé, former head of Les Républicains when it was known under its old name, the Union for a Popular Movement.

"The right has been swept away ... The right has just experienced its April 21," he said, referring to April 21, 2002, when Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was knocked out in the first round by far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine.

Fake jobs scandal

Things began to go drastically wrong for Fillon's campaign in January after allegations emerged in the press that his British-born wife Penelope had earned 680,000 euros ($725,000) while working as his parliamentary assistant for 15 years - a role it was alleged was entirely fictional.

Fillon's reaction was to strongly deny that either he or his wife had done anything wrong and to claim his left-wing rivals were operating a "secret cell" to blacken his name.

It was a response that drew scorn from president François Hollande and surprised even some of Fillon's allies.

Fillon was charged in March with misuse of public funds over the allegations, but backtracked on an earlier promise to withdraw his candidacy.

He then found himself in the unlikely position of running as an anti-establishment rebel determined to defy the government, magistrates and the media he said were working against him.

Subsequent revelations that a wealthy French-Lebanese lawyer bought handmade suits for Fillon worth 13,000 euros each drew further ire from his opponents.

On Sunday, a downcast Fillon himself admitted in his speech conceding defeat that the obstacles he had had to overcome were "too numerous, too cruel".


Fillon's policy offer was based on deep cuts in public spending and slashing hundreds of thousands of jobs from France's bloated civil service.

He also proposed attacking one of the sacred cows of the French left, the 35-hour working week, raising it to 39 hours.

In the wake of the killing of a policeman on Paris's Champs Elysees avenue on Thursday, he said that for years, "I have been warning that we are facing an Islamic totalitarianism" and promised an "iron-fisted" approach.

His outspokenness stood in contrast to his image as prime minister, of a quiet and urbane man whose steady temperament contrasted with the impulsive Sarkozy who once dismissed him as "Mr Nobody".

For the supporters that remained loyal to Fillon despite the mounting scandals, Sunday's defeat was difficult to bear.

At his campaign HQ, some supporters screamed and swore as they realised the fate of their champion as the results came in.

One young woman member of Fillon's election team burst into tears and had to leave the room.

For Fillon's party, the immediate prospects are bleak. The defeated candidate called within minutes for his supporters to back Macron in the second round.

Bernard Accoyer, secretary general of The Republicans, called a meeting of its political committee for Monday morning to discuss the defeat.



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