France's most spotless politician has suddenly got an image problem; whoever would have thought it. François Fillon denied any wrongdoing on national television on Thursday evening (26 January 2017), yet the allegedly illegitimate public payments to his Welsh wife Penelope could well make Marine Le Pen and the Front National appear 'purer' than any other presidential candidate. There's no denying it: the chances of Le Pen getting in are on the up.
Served on a silver platter? The best leg-up ever? Or bloody lucky? You choose: Le Pen could not have hoped for a better coup de théâtre. Even if Fillon escapes unscathed from this, a shadow would be cast. Those conservative voters edging towards the far-right could well ditch the Fillon choice and go for Le Pen, while those in doubt about Le Pen may decide to stick with her. If anything, they'll see no alternatives.
The former prime minister was keen to tell the nation that his wife has been an assistant to him since 1980. "She corrected my speeches," he clarified, and plenty more – all ordinary tasks relating to the job of a bog-standard politician's aide, such as representing him at events and seeing people that he couldn't meet in person.
Fillon also made very clear that he wouldn't hesitate to sue any media outlets maintaining that his wife carried out ficticious jobs.
That being said, it is also true that Penelope Fillon has always publicly maintained that she never had anything to do with her husband's career, and was busy bringing up their children far away from Paris.
Nevertheless, this is a potentially huge scandal in the making. Not so much for the actual amount involved (Fillon said it is not true that his wife received half a million euros over eight years from public funds for a parliamentary assistant's job she never did), but because we live in times where we've seen and heard it all. Many of us are truly fed up. There's no room for any understanding of any kind whatsoever. Enough is enough.
Our representative democracies all over Europe are at an all-time low. We look for new faces in the hope they'll be better than the same old career politicians. Nigel Farage owes much of his success to such understandable feelings, and so does his EU ally Beppe Grillo, Italy's leader of the anti-establishment MoVimento 5 Stelle, or Five Star Movement.
The letter 'V' in the Italian MoVimento is spelled with a capital because it stands for vaffanculo, loosely translated as 'two fingers' – a not-so-gentle reminder of what Farage's friends are about: getting rid of the old, whatever it takes. They could well win Italy's general election this year: Five Star has never been rated so highly in the polls as now, as more than 30%.
With the French socialists doing as badly as never before, and Fillon's political, existential headache, Le Pen is riding on a wave
According to some analysts, Five Star could govern by forming a coalition with the Northern League, an anti-immigration party that rates almost as highly as its German counterpart AfD, or Alternative für Deutschland. Both are allies of Le Pen and Holland's Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom).
These nationalist outfits recently got cosy in Koblenz, Germany to celebrate their common successes. They are getting stronger by the day and keep regularly in touch, sharing ideas and campaign tips. Their global mentors are egging them on as we speak: Vladimir Putin's propaganda system has of late helped AfD set up its own radio station.
This is the antagonising scenario facing Fillon. He's always been very keen on proving he's an impeccable politician. He's built a lot of his reputation on this as he knows how despised mainstream politicians are – many among the public think they're all in it for themselves, and with reason. Our hopes rest with those who want to serve the public interest by giving all they can and by taking only what they're entitled – not a penny more. Is this asking too much? Today, many French people are asking themselves the same question.
With the French socialists doing as badly as never before, and Fillon's political, existential headache, Le Pen is riding on a wave.
Alessio Colonnelli is a freelance journalist who has written for Open Democracy, The Independent, Foreign Policy and Politico Europe.