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21 November 2016

Is Francois Fillon Marine Le Pen’s dream opponent?

The former French prime minister's unexpected surge puts him in the box seat for the Republican nomination - and the French presidency. 

By Stephen Bush

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s comeback bid ended in ignominy yesterday after a chastening third-place finish in the Republican primary, ending his hopes of being the centre-right candidate for the French presidency. That we expected from the polls – but what we didn’t expect was the surge for Francois Fillon, former prime minister, beating Alain Juppé, anotherformer French prime minister into first place.

Fillon is as close to French politics gets to a Thatcherite ultra – read this very good Anne-Sylvaine Chassany interview with him to get a measure of who he is – which has some commentators nervous that if, he, not the more centrist Juppé, faces Marine Le Pen in the second round, he will lose, as leftwingers stay at home. 

(For those of you who aren’t au fait with the French electoral system: you have two rounds. If no candidate secures more than half of the vote in the first round, the top two go through to a second round, held in this case next Sunday. Le Pen is widely expected to lead in the first round and then lose in the second. It is highly likely that it will be the Republican candidate that makes it into the second round with her.)

Are they right? Well, no-one has gone broke betting on the far right in recent years (which is more than can be said for betting on sterling) but there is plenty of reason not to get out the bunting for Le Pen just yet. 

Fillon’s chances are good – that the beaten Sarkozy has endorsed him, not Juppé, is a measure of the challenge that Juppé faces – but 15 per cent of voters in the primary yesterday came from the left and there may be more in the second round. Juppé’s chances aren’t quite gone yet, though Fillon looks the favourite by some distance.

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And while I am reluctant to generalize from the thin anecdotal pool of a handful of friends in the French socialist party, my sense is that for all there is a political gap between Juppé and Fillion, the two men are both hated on the left.  Unlike Sarkozy, however, neither is loathed, meaning that the so-called “Republican front” – the historical alliance of non-extremist parties against the parties of the fringe –  is as likely to hold for Fillon as for Juppé.

But if it is Fillon, it will have big consequences. Not for Brexit, where both men – as with most of the French establishment – are unsympathetic to Britain. (And as I’ve written before, both will be preoccupied with containing Le Pen, which means giving Britain as raw a deal as possible.) But Fillon, crucially, is pro-Putin, and believes that a deal must be done with Russia and Bashar-Al-Assad to combat the soi-disant Islamic State, which will, after Trump’s victory, further orient the powers of the West in Putin’s direction.

One heck of an intray for the new leader of the free world aka Angela Merkel.

This originally appeared in today’s Morning Call, your daily guide to everything that’s moving in politics, in Westminster and beyond, to which you can subscribe here