On Sunday, November 27, François Fillon officially won the center-right primary in France, becoming the de facto leading candidate for the presidential election of April-May 2017. President Sarkozy’s former prime minister (2007-2012) won in a landslide victory, getting more than 66 percent of the votes against Alain Juppé, also former prime minister (1995-1997) and long-time favorite of the polls. This victory, which seemed impossible a month ago, already constitutes the opening of a new era in the history of France’s conservative party, as it puts an end to both Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy’s political careers. Often forgotten by the media and labelled as too traditional, François Fillon is now at the center of attention, and his program under more serious scrutiny.
The primary, the first in the party’s history, was an undeniable electoral success as more than 4 million French citizens participated in each round. The exceptionally high number of voters clearly shows that Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. has actually encouraged the French electorate to vote for a traditional right-wing candidate instead of strengthening the popular support for populist discourses and parties as predicted. With a long political career backing him, Fillon campaigned on the ideas of reforming the French socio-economic model and making France the first power in Europe within ten years. Fillon’s platform and strategy of “making France great again” are quite unambiguous, and may complicate Le Pen’s electoral strategy. His overwhelming victory adds some clarity to a still very confused pre-campaign season.
First of all, François Fillon will be able to prepare for the presidential elections with a strong mandate as the candidate of the mainstream-right. The solid popular support gives him the necessary legitimacy to unite all the right-wing forces under his candidacy, and – perhaps more importantly – the party has not ended up divided by the competitions between its main leaders during the primary. Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy have declared their support for the chosen candidate, and François Fillon can also rely on the univocal rallying of the “younger generation” of the party. Fillon’s main objective will now be to reach out to the center electorate, which may have been alienated by his firm position on identity and social issues. He will have to find the right balance between the strongly conservative discourse that helped him win the primaries against the “softer” Alain Juppé and the need to reassure more moderate voters.
This appeal to the center may be all the more necessary as the rise of a strong candidate in the center, like Emmanuel Macron for example, could attract the support of Juppé’s voters. On the other hand of his political spectrum, François Fillon will have to deal with Marine Le Pen’s strategy to garner the support of the right wing of Les Républicains. The Front National’s leader will undoubtedly call on Fillon, with his 30-year long political career and having been prime minister during Sarkozy’s whole presidential mandate, to take responsibility for the actions of the so-called “system.”
Economic issues may be the dividing line.
While Le Pen will not be able to use identity politics to distinguish herself from the Républicain candidate, she will insist on Fillon’s very liberal economic program. While he promised to cut 500,000 civil-service jobs and took Margaret Thatcher as a model, Le Pen will continue to promote the strengthening of the public sector and protectionist policies.
François Fillon’s victory could also change the nature of the debate on France’s foreign policy and further complicate Le Pen’s electoral strategy. His explicit intention to engage in a rapprochement with Russia (shared by Le Pen), and to work with Assad in the name of the fight against the Islamic State, would be a complete turnabout from the current French strategy. Fillon, who regularly refers to a so-called Gaullist tradition in foreign policy, also highlighted “U.S. imperialism” as one of the main threats to Europe and the main cause of Putin’s geopolitical assertiveness, and intends to find a new middle “between Washington and Moscow.” Paradoxically, this posture may facilitate French-U.S. cooperation under a Trump Administration, with whom Fillon has a more compatible worldview — but it might also further isolate Germany and divide Europe on the Russian issues.
Five months before the first round of the presidential elections, it is way too early to predict a victory for the Les Républicains’ candidate, despite his current leading position in the polls. The French political landscape will continue to be reshuffled as new candidates emerge and new alliances are made. But, in this context, the victory of François Fillon, with his strongly conservative program, does provide some key indicators of the dynamics influencing in the forthcoming campaign.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Director Paris Office, Senior Transatlantic Fellow
Martin Quencez, Program Officer and Fellow, Security and Defense