The troubles of Penelope Fillon would require the art of a Bernini or a Tintoretto to do them justice. While one may have a few shreds of sympathy for the lady in question, it would take a heart of stone not to smile just a little at the unfolding saga which is now threatening not just Mr Francois Fillon but the electoral prospects of the mainstream conservative right in the forthcoming presidential election, and the ensuing parliamentary ballots. There is something little short of delightful in the Sarkozyist and Juppéist buzzards circling above the wounded body of the victor of the republican primary, whose attachment to family values seem to have been taken to extremes.
Whether this is corruption in the legal sense, or just cronyism for personal enrichment and a relatively minor venality is a matter for the French justice system which remains rather proudly independent. But public opinion appears to have made up its mind. This stinks. Mr Fillon and his party are in a serious bind. If he clings on, he could end up not being in the last round, or conceivably limping in in fourth place. If he goes, there being no time to organise a decisive nationwide primary, his successor is unlikely to have the legitimacy that the Fillon candidature enjoyed, at least for a moment.
But gloating by socialists at the fall of the dapper Mr Fillon, or in any case his hefty stumble, should be short-lived, and for three reasons.
First, the weakening of the centre right campaign and the possible bloody dispatch of its standard bearer could have some rather dramatic consequences. It puts paid to the prospect of a left/right contest in the second round. While, according to the polls, Mrs LePen would be roundly defeated by Mr Macron, one cannot entirely exclude a run-off between the official socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon and the leader of the Front Nationale should other centrists enter the fray. Mr Hamon makes Jeremy Corbyn seem like the epitome of pragmatism and moderation. A final round between him and the extreme right could be too close for comfort.
The second reason is that this squalid saga of family favouritism and the overweening sense of entitlement it reveals harms not just the perpetrator and his political party but is further grist to the mill of those on the extremes, the anti-system crowd, who propagate the lie that all politicians in mainstream parties are corrupt, ‘in it for themselves’ and apply rules to all but themselves. In this climate populists prosper and democratic politicians pay the price whether their party is in the firing line or not: and this despite Mrs LePen and her colleagues facing awkward and repeated questions about their own use of public funds.
And, finally, the uncomfortable truth is that European socialists have not been preaching by example. The recent measures by the Romanian social democrat government to dilute an anti-corruption law which have brought out on to the streets crowds as large as in the last days of the Ceausescus are simply the latest in a long series of embarrassments for the centre left in Europe. The socialist party in neighbouring Bulgaria has hardly been a paragon of civic virtue. The ‘sister’ party in Slovakia combines questionable financial practice with crude xenophobic populism which would not disgrace Viktor Orban. Nor are these problems of cronyism, financial irregularities and outright corruption limited to the Eastern half of the continent. Belgian Socialists have for some time distinguished themselves with venality on an almost epic scale: not so long ago, party leaders jailed, and a third found murdered in the carpark in front of his mistresses’ flat. As an aspiring writer of political thrillers, I would shy away from such improbabilities.
It would be a triumph of hope over experience to imagine that the Party of European Socialists (PES) in its current form could sort out the problems of putrefying scandals in its ranks. The PES remains a technocratic cartel of national party bureaucrats whose prime motivation appears to be to prevent any erosion of their own parties’ ability to behave or indeed misbehave entirely as they choose. Until the Party of European Socialists is handed over to its members, supporters and activists and develops a democratic life of its own it will not be able to shake off its image of complicity with corruption which will undermine any attempt to beat back the populist offensive in 2019. I will be returning to this subject.