First Rule of Punditry: Never make sweeping predictions nine months out from an election. Last November I was foolish enough to declare that 'in all likelihood, François Fillon will be the next president of France’. Having upstaged the establishment favourites to win the nomination as presidential candidate for France’s mainstream centre-right Républicains in the party’s inaugural primary elections, Fillon, French prime minister from 2008 to 2012, already seemed to command a presidential air.

Also refreshing was his honest recognition of the Republic’s woes. In recent decades, France has proved itself a past master in the art of resisting reform. In Fillon’s pairing of a call for a slimmed down Leviathan with a robust patriotism seemed to lie an acknowledgement by the electorate that radical overhaul could no longer be deferred.

But acclaiming him so early as next resident of the Élysée was in hindsight a mistake.

Owing to allegations that as an MP in France’s Assemblée Nationale he paid his British-born wife, Penelope, 900,000 euros against his parliamentary expenses for a job she never did, Fillon last month came under official investigation for corruption, with investigators searching both the couple’s homes - an apartment in Paris’s 7th arrondissement and château in provincial Maine - for evidence.

As he has become bogged down in an almost daily defence of his personal probity, Fillon’s campaign has bled supporters like an open wound. Earlier this month speculation was rife that, led by former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, party bigwigs would push Fillon to resign in favour of Alain Juppé, his runner-up in the primaries, former French foreign minister and currently mayor of Bordeaux. 

The problem is Fillon wasn’t - and still isn’t - ready to give up, repeatedly declaring his determination to fight to the bitter end. His supporters are just as committed, as the enthusiastic, flag-waving crowd of 50,000 showed, braving the wind and the rain at a hastily called rally at Paris’s Trocadéro the Sunday before last. Many of these now see this as a struggle against the Républicains’ own party hierarchy, keen on installing a more centrist candidate than the outspokenly patriotic and unabashedly Catholic Fillon.

One of the reasons for the loyalty Fillon inspires is that his is a conservatism that hasn’t been seen for decades. Even the founder of the French post-war right (and, indeed, the present Fifth Republic), proudly patriotic Général François de Gaulle, kept his Catholicism low key as president to demonstrate his commitment to the republican ideal of laïcité.

By contrast, the active involvement of Catholics in Fillon’s campaign has correctly been interpreted as a sign of the rebirth of France’s once moribund Catholic Church. Vocations are up and, for the first time in decades, the Church is beginning to feel more confident in defending Catholic teachings in public debate.

In this age of Brexit and Trump, Fillon’s appeal to the traditional values of the provinces - la France profonde - has been central to his popularity, enabling him to play the part of populist insurgent even while heading the mainstream centre-right party.

This once seemed a winning formula. Today it raises serious questions about which way his supporters will break when, as now seems inevitable, Fillon bows out of the race. Though his base remains energetic, accumulating doubts about his probity make it hard to imagine Fillon winning many new votes from among that third of the electorate still undecided.

Thus, in a speech the morning after the show of strength at the Trocadero, Juppé publicly withdrew his name from consideration for the nomination. Party officials reaffirmed their unanimous support for Fillon later the same day. But no sooner had another day of campaigning dawned than a fresh scandal broke: Fillon’s failure to declare a 50,000 euro loan from French businessman Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, though French laws require the declaration of all sums over 760 euros to the country’s transparency authorities.

The candidate who stands to gain the most out of the Républicains’ difficulties is the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. According to recent polls, she and Emanuel Macron - a left-of-centre candidate who has served economics minister in Hollande’s government but has since founded his own party (En Marche! ‘Let’s go!’) -  each stand to win 25%-26% of the vote. Third with around 20%, Fillon would be excluded from the all-important second round, which decides the presidency. Could his supporters get Le Pen over the line?

In a masterful recent essay, Robert Tombs, professor of French history at Cambridge, described France a ‘stalemate society’.

‘Because France fluctuates between short spasms of change and longer periods of immobility’, he writes, ‘it has developed institutional barriers and tacit compromises to hold things steady.’ Tactical voting in the second round is one of them, according to a tradition whereby mainstream left and right come together to keep the Front National out of the Élysée.

In ‘normal’ circumstances, Fillon’s supporters could thus be counted on to vote for Macron. But these aren’t normal times. Many socially conservative voters believe that in Fillon they have found a voice denied them for decades. If only to poke a stick in the eye of a ruling class they feel has ignored them, many will be tempted to vote for Le Pen. Others will be spend Election Day at home. The old discipline is breaking down.

This probably still won’t be enough for Le Pen to win the presidency. (Most polls have Macron beating Le Pen by a margin of around 60-40.) But she will come closer than might otherwise have been expected.

The safe money must now be on Macron, a 39-year old former Rothschild banker, whose programme of economic liberalisation, radical by the standards of the French left, recalls Tony Blair’s New Labour while his youth and cool, informal manner lend him the appearance of a kind of French Obama.

On social issues, however, a figure further from Fillon is hard to imagine. Whereas celebrating France’s historical culture is a theme of Fillon’s, Macron has presented himself as a post-historical candidate, using English rather than French to address an audience in Berlin in January and in Alger a month later describing French colonialism as a ‘crime against humanity’.

And though both he and Fillon have presented themselves as outsiders, Macron is the continuity candidate: a study released today by Le Monde suggests at least 40% of his manifesto commitments are taken verbatim from that of President Hollande five years ago or represent developments on them.

In what was ultimately a bitter speech renouncing his own dreams of ever occupying the presidency, Juppé called Fillon’s campaign a ‘waste’, noting that last November the road to the Élysée lay open before him.

Like Brexit, the 2017 French presidential election has demonstrated that voters see themselves as more than just economic agents. History, culture and identity matter too. The tragedy of Fillon’s conservative insurgency on behalf of a half-forgotten France is that his personal indiscretions have opened the same road to a man and movement whose vision of France is the very antithesis of the one he stood for.

Photo: Flickr/European People's Party