Thursday 9 February 2017 4:15 am

Scandal-hit Francois Fillon could gift Marine Le Pen the French presidency

His campaign is in serious crisis, but Francois Fillon – candidate of the centre-right after a convincing victory in the primaries – said on Monday that he will continue to fight to become the next President of France despite a scandal engulfing him and his family.

Trying to save his campaign, he apologised to the French people for his “errors” but denied that his wife and children were paid significant sums of public money for work in parliament they didn’t actually do.

Well he didn’t deny that he had paid them significant sums of public money, but insisted that what he had done – jobs for the family, please! – was legal, even though he acknowledged that it was no longer seen as acceptable.

Many French have taken objection to Fillon as a result of the saga, and his popularity has crashed. From a 60 per cent probability he would become President in January, that chance only stands at 22 per cent today. As I write, independent centre-left candidate Emmanuel Macron beats him in the polls.

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If you look at the numbers, Fillon may actually not make it past the first round of the presidential elections.

But here’s the rub which is alarming the markets: what if he makes it through to the second round and faces the leader of the far right Marine Le Pen in a face-off?

The polls currently don’t suggest that this scenario will arise, but, as we know, polls change, can be wrong and things can get ugly. Fillon’s Thatcherite approach to the French welfare state may not bring in the voters from the left. And this “damaged” candidate could give the French an excuse to vote for “not phoney” Le Pen.

Le Pen may stand for ideals far removed from the French triumvirate of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” but she keeps it real. She speaks in plain, concise French that appeals to citizens outside Paris. She wants to curb immigration, eradicate terrorism and get France out of the euro – and that’s the same nationalistic tone that got President Trump elected.

Read more: Is the Francois Fillon scandal good news for Marine Le Pen?

Using rhetoric which was so convincing to many in the US presidential campaign, she believes France is under threat from globalisation and Islamic fundamentalism.

She re-branded her campaign as “Marine” in an attempt to be perceived as the person next door who looks after you. When our Paris correspondent interviewed her a couple of years ago, she made a point of putting on her make-up in the toilet of the National Front HQ, as if on a girls night out.

And just like the Donald, her rallies attract tens of thousands of people (the only other candidate who has that kind of pulling power is Macron).

In fact, we’ve been focusing so much on why Trump became US President that we forgot to analyse why Hillary Clinton did not.

I remember being in New York last September and a senior female politician I admire very much told me: “I just don’t like Hillary. I want to, but I don’t.” Sure she won the popular vote, but not enough people went to the polls for her in key states. Trump could rally. She could not.

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Marine can rally. Fillon can not. And he’s now seen by many as deeply flawed. He was also Prime Minister of France for five years under Nicolas Sarkozy – who we now understand is under investigation for illegally exceeding his campaign spending limits.

Le Pen has a stronger chance of becoming President of France (and what would that mean for the European Union?) if she’s up against Fillon in the second round of the presidential elections in May. This is not fanciful speculation, this is very much a possible scenario. Live with that, Monsieur Fillon.

These views are not necessarily shared by Bloomberg.