Can François Fillon stop Marine Le Pen becoming France’s president?

The presidential ambitions of the “French Thatcherite”.

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The next French presidential election, which will be held in spring next year, was meant to mark Nicolas Sarkozy’s return to political power. Instead, he couldn’t even make it to the second round of the primary for the Républicains. He was beaten into third place after his former prime minister, François Fillon, secured a surprise first-round victory. Alain Juppé, widely seen as the front-runner, came second.

For Fillon, it was a victory not only over the pundits – who had largely written off his candidacy – but over internal opponents on the right of French politics. Born in the northern city of Le Mans, the 62-year-old is not an énarque – a graduate of the École nationale d’administration, the school that is to the French political establishment what Oxford and a PPE degree are to Britain’s governing class. However, he has been a prominent figure in French politics for decades, serving as a minister when Juppé was prime minister in the 1990s, as an aide to Sarkozy in his first, successful campaign for the presidency, and then as premier throughout the latter’s sole term as president (2007-2012).

In that role, Fillon was a colourless figure compared to Sarkozy (“the hyper-president”, as he is called by the French press). Fillon occupied a similar role to Didier Deschamps in the French football team of more creative talents  – that of bag-carrier, tidying up after his hyperactive leader.

The British media have called Fillon a “Thatcherite”, and if there is a British analogue for his ideology, that is it. His wife, whom he met while she was teaching English in Le Mans in 1974, is Welsh, and he has an affection for what many in France describe as the “Anglo-Saxon” economic model. That underpins his political programme, too: he wants to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, scrap the 35-hour working week and curtail France’s still-powerful unions. Yet it is perhaps more accurate to see Fillon as a Sarkozyite ultra, going further than his former master dared.

Fillon was underestimated by all sides in the first round of the presidential primary for the Républicains. Both Sarkozy and Juppé believed he had no chance. As a result, they came not to bury Fillon, but to praise him, to secure his personal endorsement – and that of his voters, to whom they planned to appeal in the second round.

It’s a strategy similar to the one that brought about Nick Clegg’s triumph in the UK’s 2010 televised election debates, in which the two leading candidates only succeeded in puffing up the unfancied third man rather than pinching his votes. Fillon, thanks to his call for France to submit itself to the “shock therapy” of radical economic change, appealed to right-wingers who dislike Sarkozy and who regard Juppé as too left-wing to win the presidency. Fillon had a strict Catholic upbringing from his parents, a civil lawyer and an academic. In France, Catholic conservatism is still a powerful force. His background didn’t hurt his chances.

For all that, it is not clear whether Fillon can turn his triumph in the first round into a successful run for the presidency. Under the French primaries system, a winner must secure more than half of the vote to become a party’s presidential candidate. Fillon won 45 per cent of the vote in the first round, and so faces a run-off with the second-placed Juppé. But Fillon is well placed to win it, particularly as Sarkozy has endorsed him.

Yet he may find that his “shock therapy” is not to the taste of all Républicain primary voters. Exit polls show that 15 per cent of voters in the first round were left-wingers (anyone can vote if they pay a €2 fee and sign a charter to confirm that they agree with the “Republican values of the centre and the right”). More voters may turn out for the second round, which would improve Juppé’s chances. Left-wing distaste for Fillon could cause him further problems next year.

It is expected that the Front National’s Marine Le Pen will lead in the first round of the presidential race proper, before the “republican front” – the coalition of centrist and left-wing voters who typically vote against fringe candidates of both sides – reasserts itself in favour of her opponent.

The pack chasing Le Pen will include not only the winner of the centre right’s primary, but also the candidate for the Parti Socialiste and the neo-Blairite Emmanuel Macron. They will compete to face her in a contest that will determine not only the future of France as a pluralist democracy, but the continued existence of the EU.

The centre-right candidate starts as a heavy favourite to challenge Le Pen for the presidency because the left is discredited and demoralised, thanks to the weak record of the incumbent president, François Hollande. Fillon is likely, therefore, to secure the centre right’s nomination and also to be handed the task of stopping Le Pen.

Is he up to it? Juppé the arch-centrist is thought to be more appealing to the left-wing voters who will need to “hold their nose” and vote for a right-wing politician if Le Pen is to be stopped. Fillon’s Anglo-Saxon politics may exude a smell too pungent for the French left to ignore. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile