A Fight for the Soul of the French Right
AP Photo/Thibault Camus
A Fight for the Soul of the French Right
AP Photo/Thibault Camus
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On Sunday night, as the returns were being counted in the first round of the French presidential primary for the conservative Les Républicains party, the nation’s political landscape shuddered not once but twice. Taking by surprise commentators and pollsters, former Prime Minister François Fillon came in first with 44 percent of the vote, outdistancing the favorite, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé. But -- and here the earth shifted a second time -- he also doubled the score of his onetime boss, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who finished a distant third.

Overnight, Nicolas Sarkozy -- who for better and worse had dominated the French political scene for nearly two decades -- became history, while the man he condescendingly referred to as his “collaborator” became France’s future.

During the five years he served as prime minister, Fillon was widely seen as the brake to the bling-blinging of his boss. Stolid, steady, and sturdy, Fillon offered a soothing contrast to the sharp elbows and jutting jaws that marked Sarkozy’s confrontational approach to politics. Either unable or unwilling to turn politics into performance, governance into spectacle, Fillon at times was dismissed as “Mister Nobody.”

But, of course, only a Mister Somebody can win, as did Fillon, nearly half of the four million votes cast in the conservative primary. (Intriguingly, about 15 percent of those who voted in the open primary situate themselves on the political left.) Moreover, he is a somebody who in less contentious and more constant fashion embraces many of the policies on which Sarkozy had campaigned. The chance to have someone with Sarkozy’s values, without having to deal with Sarkozy himself in the Elysée, proved irresistible. As the political commentator Jérémy Collado remarked: “François Fillon was the alternative for those who wanted to avoid Nicolas Sarkozy, all the while remaining firmly on the right.”

The differences run deeper. Not only cynics saw Sarkozy as an opportunist, ready to use ideas and ideals as a means, not an end. On the other hand, Fillon has always been, for better or worse, a true believer. Belief, in fact, has always informed his life. Born in the Vendée, the region whose Catholic population fiercely opposed the secular mission of the Revolution, Fillon is a devout Catholic. When French politics was overtaken in 2012 by the debate over the legalization of gay marriage, Fillon never hid his opposition.  In his campaign book, “Faire” (To Make), he devoted an entire chapter to his Christian faith and Catholic practice. While he concedes that the gay marriage law must be respected, he insists still on reining in what he calls its “excesses” -- namely, giving homosexual couples the right to adopt children.

Not surprisingly, Fillon won the support of Sens Commun, or "Common Sense," an influential Catholic organization closely aligned with the Manif pour Tous (“Demonstration for All” -- a pun on the gay marriage movement, Mariage pour Tous) movement that had led the massive protests against the gay marriage law. Along with Fillon’s stance on gay marriage, his remarks on Islam have also galvanized conservative Catholics. While avoiding Sarkozy’s inflammatory language, Fillon has nevertheless spoken bluntly about what he considers to be the unique challenge posed by Islam. There is, he declared,  “a concrete problem with radical Islam. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, and Sikhs do not threaten our national unity.” Perhaps because he assumes it is understood by one and all, Fillon neglected to add that the vast majority of French Muslims do not threaten France’s unity, either

Given the prohibition to ask voters their religious orientation, French pollsters can only speculate over the size of Fillon’s Catholic vote. Tellingly, though, areas with a high concentration of practicing Catholics voted in their majority for Fillon. For example, Fillon won 52 percent of the vote in the city of Angers, neighboring the Vendée. As a thirtysomething project manager observed: “For a long time, I’ve mostly voted by default. With Fillon, though, I am voting for my own Christian values.”

Along with the dogma of the church, Fillon holds to the dogma of the free market. Both critics and colleagues have compared him to Margaret Thatcher in his goal of reducing the size of the state bureaucracy and freeing employers from the constraints placed on them by socialist governments. He intends to bury the 35-hour workweek -- replacing it with the 39-hour week to which employers can add nine hours of overtime -- as well as loosen the laws that govern the hiring and firing of employees. In addition, he vows the elimination, between 2017 and 2022, of 500,000 positions from the state bureaucracy -- a campaign promise that eclipsed even Sarkozy’s goal of 350,000 eliminated positions. Quite simply, as the centrist magazine L’Express noted, Fillon promises blood and tears.

It remains to be seen whether blood and tears will be on the Elysée’s menu come 2017. If Fillon defeats the more centrist and flexible Juppé in this Sunday’s second round, he will almost certainly face Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme rightwing National Front in the second round of next year’s presidential election. While their conceptions of France differ in fundamental respects, the combined weight of Fillon and Le Pen will shift the next five years of French politics considerably to the right.