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As Sarkozy’s antithesis, François Fillon won a character contest – but can he win an election?

With the socialist party in disarray, the winner of the primary is almost assured to face Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election.

However impressive François Fillon’s win was last Sunday in the first round of the French conservative primary, there is little doubt that voters piled into the polling stations primarily to get rid of Nicolas Sarkozy. For good.

The former French President lost because an overwhelming majority of French people do not like him. It’s the harsh truth. The first round of the primary turned out to be a referendum for or against Sarkozy, as was the presidential election in 2012. Back then, the current President François Hollande won by default in a move to oust Sarkozy.

François Fillon was Sarkozy’s Prime Minister for the five years he was President. If results from their time in office were an issue for voters, Fillon would not have such a strong lead after the first round. What differentiates Fillon and Sarkozy is their personality. When Sarkozy became unpopular as President, the Prime Minister Fillon remained quite popular. He was seen as Sarkozy’s antithesis.

Sarkozy has been widely criticised for his love of money (he was dubbed the “bling-bling” president), his brash demeanour, divisive positions, and more generally for not embodying with enough dignity the presidential office. Fillon, on the other hand, has always been viewed as a unifier, calm, serious, if not a little austere.

Alain Juppé, who he will be facing in the second round of the primary, is seen to have a similar character to François Fillon. Next Sunday, the voters should be more focused on the candidates’ manifestos.

With an extremely comfortable lead after the first round (44 per cent to 28 per cent), it is nearly impossible for Fillon to lose the primary to Juppé. A poll published on Tuesday has given a distinct advantage to Fillon over Juppé, 65 per cent to 35 per cent.

Key to the 62-year-old securing his lead and going on to win on Sunday will be the televised debate which will take place on Thursday night. He fared well in the three debates held ahead of the first round. He appeared confident when spelling out his manifesto and in mastering a diversity of issues ranging from domestic to international affairs.

Fillon will do well if he sticks to his manifesto, shows consistency and conviction. He must not be tempted to stray down the populist path, which was one of the reasons of Sarkozy’s downfall.

In this race, now that Sarkozy has lost and is supporting him, he is the more socially conservative and the more economically liberal of both candidates. On security, austerity, and immigration, he upstages Juppé whose manifesto seems, to many voters, weak in comparison.

In a desperate attempt to swing the primary, Juppé and his supporters have tried to stir controversy and highlight his most conservative ideas.

They have, in particular, been reminding voters that Fillon is personally against abortion, asking him to clarify his position. He has however consistently said he would never challenge its legal status. Outraged, Fillon told the French press: “I would never have thought that my friend Alain Juppe could stoop so low.”

Juppé has also criticised Fillon’s austerity plan for being too brutal and unrealistic. Fillon plans, in particular, to cut 500,000 jobs in the civil service, when Juppé said he will cut 200,000. It is unlikely that this argument will sway the vast majority of primary voters who identify as conservatives and consider that it is high time to downsize the French civil service.

However receptive voters might be to the arguments put forward this week, both candidates’ future hangs in the turnout next Sunday. Around 4 million people voted in the first round, but without Sarkozy, the stakes do not seem as high in the second round for many French people.

This week, Fillon and especially Juppé need to make sure their voters turn up to the polling stations on Sunday. With the socialist party in disarray, the winner of the primary is almost assured to face Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election. A whole new battle will then begin.

Philip Kyle is a French and English freelance journalist.

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Emmanuel Macron's "moralisation of politics" comes at a heavy price for his allies

"Fake" jobs in French politics, season 3 episode 1.

Something is rotten in the state of France. No political party – at least none that existed before 2016 – seems immune to the spread of investigations into “fake” or shady parliamentary jobs. The accusations sank centre-right candidate François Fillon’s presidential campaign, and led to Marine Le Pen losing her parliamentary immunity in the European parliament (and proxy wars within her party, the National Front). Both deny the allegations. Now the investigations have made their way to the French government, led by Edouard Philippe, Emmanuel Macron’s Prime Minister.

On Wednesday morning, justice minister François Bayrou and secretary of state for European affairs Marielle de Sarnez announced their resignation from Philippe’s cabinet. They followed defence minister Sylvie Goulard’s resignation the previous day. The three politicians belonged not to Macron's party, En Marche!, but the centrist MoDem party. Bayrou, the leader, had thrown his weight behind Macron after dropping his own presidential bid in April.

The disappearance of three ministers leaves Emmanuel Macron’s cross-party government, which includes politicians from centre left and centre right parties, without a centrist helm. (Bayrou, who has run several times for the French presidency and lost, is the original “neither left nor right” politician – just with a less disruptive attitude, and a lot less luck). “I have decided not to be part of the next government,” he told the AFP.

Rumours had been spreading for weeks. Bayrou, who was last part of a French government as education minister from 1993 to 1997, had been under pressure since 9 June, when he was included in a preliminary investigation into “embezzlement”. The case revolves around whether the parliamentary assistants of MoDem's MEPs, paid for by the European Parliament, were actually working full or part-time for the party. The other two MoDem ministers who resigned, along with Bayrou, also have assistants under investigation.

Bayrou has denied the allegations. He has declared that there “never was” any case of “fake” jobs within his party and that it would be “easy to prove”. All the same, by the time he resigned, his position as justice minister has become untenable, not least because he was tasked by Macron with developing key legislation on the “moralisation of politics”, one of the new President’s campaign pledges. On 1 June, Bayrou unveiled the new law, which plans a 10-year ban from public life for any politician convicted of a crime or offence regarding honesty and transparency in their work.

Bayrou described his decision to resign as a sacrifice. “My name was never pronounced, but I was the target to hit to attack the government’s credibility,” he said, declaring he would rather “protect this law” by stepping down. The other two ministers also refuted the allegations, and gave similar reasons for resigning. 

Macron’s movement-turned-unstoppable-machine, En Marche!, remains untainted from accusations of the sort. Their 350 new MPs are younger, more diverse than is usual in France – but they are newcomers in politics. Which is exactly why Macron had sought an alliance with experienced Bayrou in the first place.

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