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22 November 2016

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.

By Philip Kyle

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.

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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.

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