Come back François Hollande. All, or at least some, is forgiven. The thought is laughable, of course, but it has been on a few lips in France as the 2017 presidential election descends into the mess we see today. Not every woman in his life would see the outgoing head of state as irreproachable, and he has been no great shakes at the Elysée, but he has always seemed a decent enough politician. And that seems to set him apart in this country. It is not prerequisite for seeking or holding office in France to have been convicted of criminal offences in the past or face possible or actual charges now. It also seems no barrier. Here* I try to pull together all the current strands of an extraordinary contest ...
As the French presidential election veers from scandal to farce, the beleaguered centre-right candidate François Fillon is desperately fighting to stay in the race despite being enfeebled by imminent criminal charges and the mass defection of supporters.
Mr Fillon, previously favourite to take the socialist François Hollande’s place at the Elysée, was buoyed by a large turnout of sympathisers at the Paris Trocadéro, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, on Sunday.
But he remains under strong pressure to stand down after learning last week that he faces formal investigation over payments, amounting to hundreds of thousands of euros, to his British wife Penelope and two of their adult children for allegedly fictitious work.
Leaders of his party, Les Républicains, held an emergency meeting on Monday night to discuss the crisis that threatens to divide the electorate and hand victory to either the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen or the centrist dark horse, Emmanuel Macron.
Mr Fillon insists no one has the power to force his withdrawal. He has apologised for "errors" but claims to be the victim of an attempted "political assassination". In the event, party leaders voted unanimously to go on supporting him.
Underlining the sort of choices open to the French when they vote on April 23 in the first round of the election, Ms Le Pen is also embroiled in legal problems.
She could be prosecuted on any of four investigations into her own allegedly fictitious employment of staff, past election funding, personal tax declarations and the posting of images of ISIL violence on social media, which she defended as a response to unfair comparison between her anti-Islam, anti-immigration party and the terror group.
Mrs Fillon, who also faces possible prosecution, broke her silence at the weekend to declare support for her husband as the "only candidate with the experience, vision and programme to direct France".
"I have told him, and tell him each day, he should fight to the end," she told the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. "It’s for him to decide."
She denied any wrongdoing, insisting that the payments her husband made to her, one of their four sons and their daughter, all from public funds, were for work genuinely undertaken on his behalf.
Mr Fillon seemed certain to become president until the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé revealed in January that he had paid his wife €831,440 as a parliamentary assistant over a 15-year period. A total of €83,735 was paid to their daughter and one of her brothers, for legal work when neither was then practising in law. Mrs Fillon also received €100,000 for editorial functions for a literary magazine owned by one of her husband’s friends.
The uncertainty surrounding the election deepened on Monday when Alain Juppé, the man seen by worried conservatives as the ideal replacement should Mr Fillon stand down, ruled himself out.
Mr Juppé, like Mr Fillon a former prime minister, acknowledged the chaos into which the elections had descended.
"Never in France’s fifth republic [established in 1958] has a presidential election taken place in such confusion," he told a press conference in Bordeaux, the south-western city of which he is mayor.
The left was weakened and divided following Mr Hollande’s failure as president, he said, while Ms Le Pen was also entangled in legal troubles and Mr Macron was handicapped by "political immaturity" and a poor programme.
"And as for us, what a mess," he added in a reference to Les Républicains, citing the "obstinacy" of Mr Fillon and his strategy of presenting the legal procedures against him as a conspiracy.
Amid intense debate about the suitability of the candidates, their competing proposals for addressing France’s economic and social problems risk being overlooked.
The reason hundreds of Mr Fillon’s natural allies have abandoned him is that he appears to have reneged on a promise to withdraw if charged. He admitted last week that this was the purpose of his summons before judges on March 15.
Many critics saw his Paris rally, attended by tens of thousands, as a challenge to the judicial system. Mr Fillon has a long record of condemning those who see the "law of the street" as superior to the rule of law.
He denies hypocrisy, saying the rally was in support of him, not an attack on the judges, and that his stance is justified by what he sees as the unfair timing of the legal process.
But recent opinion polls suggest he will be eliminated in the first round whereas Mr Juppé would have led the field.
In a further twist to this tangled tale of modern French politics, the former president Nicolas Sarkozy called on Monday for Mr Fillon and Mr Juppé to discuss with him a "dignified and credible" solution. And Francois Baroin, a former finance minister, emerged as the latest possible replacement for Mr Fillon.
It is hardly lost on commentators that Mr Fillon’s legal problems are not unprecedented.
Mr Juppé was given a suspended sentence in 2004 for his role in another bogus jobs scandal, though – as he noted yesterday – the court accepted this involved no personal gain. Mr Sarkozy is awaiting trial accused of illegally financing his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign.
* The National, Abu Dhabi permits me to reproduce my work here. See all my articles for that newspaper at this link