The surprising victory of Francois Fillon

Since 27 November, the favorite to become the next French President in the Spring 2017 election is Francois Fillon, someone nobody a month ago would have given any serious chance to get to the limelight. He received more than 2/3 of the votes in the second round of the ‘primary’ organized by the party of the Right, ‘Les Républicains’ to select their candidate for the presidency.

The election of the president of France happens in two rounds with a two weeks interval. In the first round all candidates having raised a basic support can participate; in the second only the two frontrunners compete. The collapse of president Hollande‘s socialist party makes it almost certain now that the two will be Fillon and Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the extreme right ‘Front National’, who is forecast to gain some 30 % of the votes in the first round.

Selecting the leader who could beat Marine Le Pen was thus the main challenge of the Right’s primary. The stakes indeed go well beyond internal French politics. Not only is Marine Le Pen’s party racist, anti-Semitic and ferociously anti-immigrant, she is also aggressively Eurosceptic. She even promised a referendum on the withdrawal of France from the European Union. After the Brexit referendum, she posted: “Victory to liberty! As I have been demanding for many years, we now need the same referendum in France and EU countries.”

The surprising victory of Fillon is a new example of the volatility of the electorate – a phenomenon similar in Europe and in the United States.

Indeed, the two favorite candidates of ‘Les Républicains’ during the whole campaign for the primaries were Alain Juppé, a former Prime Minister of Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the President before Francois Hollande. Juppé was considered the wise man who could rally the moderate ‘Right’ as well as the ‘Centre’ and hopefully some of the Left in the second round. Sarkozy however adopted some of the slogans of the extreme right, notably its anti-immigration program, hoping to reduce the score of Le Pen which would then not force him to beg for the votes of the Socialists in the second round.

Curiously, neither of the two managed to convince the voters in the first round of the primary on November 20. In a spectacular comeback, after having been credited with scores in the low tens, Francois Fillon won 44 % of the votes. Juppé 28,5% and Sarkozy, to everyone’s surprise, only 20.5%, which excluded him form the second round. Fillon dramatically increased his lead in the second round, for reasons which nobody yet could rationally explain. 

Francois Fillon’ s profile

Since his victory in the ‘Républicains’ primary, the world’s press has published portraits of Fillon, the Anglophile proud of the fact that his wife Penelope is British (from Wales).

Aged 62, he was born in Le Mans (the city of the famous 24 hour car race, of which he is a fan). Like Sarkozy, he did not follow the classic path of the French political elite, attending the exclusive Sciences PO and ENA. He studied law and went directly into politics, at local and soon at national level. He was a Minister in several governments and Prime Minister during the whole five years of Sarkozy’s presidency from 2007 to 2012. Sarkozy once famously presented him as ‘my collaborator’ and at the time he got the nickname of ‘Mister Nobody’.

But Fillon has a strong character. When the socialists came to power in 2012, he resolutely engaged in the opposition with the aim of competing to become President.

He has deep roots in ‘la France Profonde’ and part of his success in the primary comes from the traditional provincial voter. A practicing Catholic, he intends if elected to reverse some of the Socialist’ s reforms of family law, notably gay marriage.

His economic program is radically ‘liberal’ to the point of having him compared with Margaret Thatcher. He intends to suppress 500.000 jobs in the public service, suppressing the limitation of the working week to 35 hours, cut public spending by 100 billion in 5 years and give 50 billion- worth of tax breaks to industry.

As a traditional ‘Gaullist’ he is not a fan of the EU: he voted ‘no’ in the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, but in today’s context, this should not lose him too many voters. His views on Foreign policy are also distant from the current French policy: he pleads for better relations with Russia and to engage with the Assad regime to end the Syria war. 

Electoral challenges in Europe

On the heels of the US presidential election, the French election of next year will be one of many in which the extreme right might play a dominant role. Hence the favorite game of academics and the press these days: analyze the reasons for the volatility of the American electorate in order to better anticipate the future for Democracy in the rest of the Western World.

The tone had already been set in June of this year with the referendum on Brexit in the UK. Several of the ingredients that influenced the American election were already then present: a tough and sometimes dirty campaign, a rejection by many voters of the ‘establishment’, an angry middle class, outright lies spread widely through social networks – and a total inability of the pollsters to predict accurately what would happen.

The next challenge following the American election will be in Italy on December 4th, when the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has taken the risk of linking his political future to a referendum on constitutional issues.  That same day, Austria will choose its new President, the choice being between a Green and an extreme Right politician. In March 2017, the Dutch are facing elections in which polls give an extreme Right party almost one third of the vote.

France comes next with the two rounds of the presidential election scheduled for 23 April and 7 May and legislative elections a little later. Legislative elections will also take place in Germany in the fall and, even there, an extreme right party Alternative für Deutschland is gaining ground – not enough however to challenge Angela Merkel who announced a few days ago that she would run for a fourth term.

In this context, it is no surprise that the political debate, in France and elsewhere in Europe, is haunted by the question: with Marine Le Pen in the second round, does she stand a chance of winning the popular vote and becoming the president of France? And what can be done to prevent it?

Could Marine Le Pen become the president of France ?

There is an historical precedent of the National Front reaching the second round of the election: Marine’s father, Jean Marie Le Pen, reached the second round of the election in April 2002, beating the too numerous socialist candidates. But finally his opponent, Jacques Chirac, won the election with a majority of 82%: not only the traditional Right but also the Left mobilized massively and voted for him in order to block Le Pen.

This time the expectation is that Marine would do better than her father. She made considerable efforts to look more acceptable to mainstream voters. And many believe that the American ‘precedent’ might increase the chances that what until recently was considered unthinkable in France might materialize: a President from the National Front.

Certainly, there are many differences between the two situations: Donald Trump was selected by the Republican party, not by an extremist party, he was not elected as an ideologue but as a pragmatist; the French vote in the second round of the presidential election is a direct popular vote of the type Hillary Clinton would have won and so on. But these are arguments from reasonable ‘establishment’ people and they do hardly resist the perception of total volatility the European electoral scene is giving today.

The presidential campaign in France is only starting now. The Socialists still have to conduct their own primary and the current President Francois Hollande has not yet announced whether he will run or not. But even if he does, he and his party are so unpopular that there is no chance of any of the leftist or centrist candidate reaching the second round.

The challenge to Marine Le Pen will therefore most probably lie with Francois Fillon. He will get the traditional Rightist votes; some people from the distant provinces will be mobilized by his ethics agenda and some by his economic program, but this will not be enough. The question is: how many traditional socialist voters will come out to vote for him in the second round even if they do not support his program? On the other end, how many socialists will be seduced by the National Front, which, with its protectionist agenda, has an increasing support with the voters from the now decayed industrial regions of France?

The future of Europe might depend on the answer to these questions. And, as was demonstrated in previous votes around the Western world, the answer might not be what many people expect.