The race to be French conservative candidate for president is between two ex-prime ministers. Francois Fillon is likely to be the nominee of the Les Republicians, and quite possibly the next President of France.
Fillon came from behind to win the first round of the primary vote last Sunday with 44 percent of the vote. Alain Juppe, his opponent, received just 28 percent. 8.5 million French people watched the final television debate on Thursday night, with 57 percent of viewers agreeing that Fillon won the contest. Pollsters find that Mr Fillon is now the favourite to win the runoff and expected to face the far-right National Front leader Marine LePen. The question is: will observers ‘get it right’ this time around?
France has come a long way since its last election in 2012, when the Socialist Francois Hollande was elected President. It is a country ‘bucking the trend.’ Donald Trump has promised new investments in US infrastructure; so too has the UK Chancellor this week. The EU-IMF is also placing pressures on governments across the globe to create more jobs and growth through spending. However, no matter which former prime minister gets to the Elysee, France wants a different approach.
Both candidates’ policies are similar for reenergising a sluggish economy: reduce government spending and lower taxes, abolish the 35-hour working week and raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. The difference is method. Professor Philippe Marliere at University College London, argues that ‘Francois Fillon’s values are old-fashioned and this gives him the support of more traditionalist Catholic groups.’ As such, he is not seen as being charismatic or exceptional. His success comes as the French conservatives shift to the right and want someone to move hard and fast on identity politics.
Juppe’s cautious approach shows that he favours preserving the ‘social model.’ Fillon throughout the debates has detached himself from the status-quo, convinced that ‘Alain Juppe doesn’t want to change things.’ With around six million people across France unemployed, two million youths out of work or training and on top a squeezed middle class, it is hardly surprising that the public seek a reversal of labour market constraints.
Fillon’s policies are described by his opponents as ‘brutal.’ Despite the fact, the contest is between two life-long Conservatives, last week saw the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro championing Fillon and the left-wing Liberation support Juppe. Right-wingers see Fillon best matched to defeat LePen, whilst Socialist voters will rally for the nonconfrontational Juppe.
The real divide between the two candidates is immigration. Fillon rejects multiculturalism saying, ‘foreigners who move to our country must respect and assimilate to our cultural heritage.’ Juppe responded. ‘We are not all the same. We have different origins and coloured skin.’ Amidst an atmosphere of deep racial undertones in France, (most notably the ‘Burka’ question), Juppe’s attempt to reach out to all may have cost him the election. Since 2009, right-wing groups on social media have referred to him as Ali-Juppe.’ On the other hand, the LGBT community is mobilising against Fillon calling him a ‘homophobe’ because he wants to restrict abortion and procreation rights for homosexual couples.
As Fillon takes the nomination, it will be the third major electoral swerve and third victory for the Russian president Vladimir Putin, after Brexit and Donald Trump’s win. 2016 has dismantled establishment politics like never before.