In a matter of weeks, former Prime Minister François Fillon – a devout Catholic conservative with aims to slash social programs and the man Nicolas Sarkozy liked to call “Mr. Nobody” – has shot to the forefront of French politics. His surprise success introduces an increasingly likely presidential standoff between two conservative extremes: the very conservative Fillon and the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen.
It is now widely assumed he will become France’s next president following the general election in May 2017.
A Sofres poll this week predicts that François Fillon will come in first in the primary round of the presidential elections against whoever is running on the left. The poll also suggests that Fillon would then go on to beat National Front leader Le Pen in the second round, 66 percent to 33 percent.
The speed of his ascendancy has taken many by surprise. So who is François Fillon and what are his plans for France?
The 62-year-old, who served as prime minister from 2007-2012, belongs to a strand of French right-wing politics that hardly ever makes headlines anymore– in fact, many Parisian observers thought it was defunct. Too overtly Catholic, too provincial, and too Thatcherite, Fillon never really fit in with a political class that largely identified as more regulation-loving and secular. Once again, in what seems to be the established pattern of 2016, the media didn’t spot the progress of an outsider (who used to be an insider, in this case).
Fillon’s plans for France are unashamedly radical. He wants to drastically shrink the French State, saying he’d slash half a million jobs in the public service, reduce the welfare bill by reducing benefits, and cut taxes by abandoning the controversial mansion tax introduced by François Mitterrand in the early 1980s.
His unexpected victory in the Republican primaries, against centrist Alain Juppé and former President Nicolas Sarkozy, shows two things. It highlights the inexorable rise of the hard right in Western democracies, mostly recently seen in the U.S with Trump’s surprise victory. It also signals a shift in the center of political gravity in France. His win revealed the desire of the conservative French electorate — a group who often feel they are ignored by the rest of the country — to be more vocal about their beliefs and convictions.
The initial catalyst for Fillon’s recent success can be traced back to 2012 when the same-sex marriage bill was passed, despite a million people taking to the streets in protest. This result saw France’s old right rise from the ashes to quietly gather momentum, almost unnoticed by the elite. His shock win is the revenge for a brand of French conservatism that many had assumed was extinct.
Other proposals that have boosted Fillon’s popularity include cuts to public spending by €110bn, increasing the retirement age from 62 to 65, reforming labor laws, burying the 35-hour workweek, and helping entrepreneurs lay off workers more easily. But despite the comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, François Fillon is not yet planning to privatise state companies.
Much like Marine Le Pen, Fillon is an admirer of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who he knows personally. On foreign policy, Fillon argues that France should talk to anyone involved in the Syrian conflict – President Bashar Al-Assad included – and opposes Europe’s sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.
On social matters, Fillon’s traditionalist and Catholic family values overlap with those of Le Pen. He has insisted that he will not try to repeal same-sex marriage legislation but would seek to prevent married same-sex couples from adopting children. Throughout the campaign Fillon stridently defended French values, warning of the dangers of “Islamic totalitarianism.”
Ultimately, Fillon is proposing shock therapy for a country that has been long reluctant to seek radical change. Despite reservations from many left of center, past presidential candidates in France have won elections on similar pledges. It would be foolish to dismiss him again.