Francois Fillon has never shied away from comparison to his political hero, Margaret Thatcher.
From professing his delight at being compared to ‘someone who saved her country’ in an interview with BFMTV last November, to telling The Financial Times that he wanted a ‘showdown’ with unions à la Iron Lady, the surprise victor of the French centre-right presidential primary seems intent on marking himself out as the Iron Man. Libération, the left-leaning French newspaper, even produced a cover combining their faces.
Fillon’s victory in the first round of the French presidential election, on 23rd April, seems a foregone conclusion. That is, unless 2017 features political upsets to rival 2016.
In the run-off round on 7th May, French voters are likely to face a choice between the nationalism of Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) and Fillon’s Thatcherism at the head of the Republicans.
It’s an election that evokes memories of 2002, when the run-off round was a battle between incumbent Jacques Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement (the predecessor of Fillon’s Republicans) and the Front National, then under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen. All other political parties but one directed their voters to Chirac, in order to prevent Le Pen senior’s extreme brand of nationalism from securing victory (even Libération urged voters to ‘vote for the crook, not the fascist’).
If, or when, Fillon wins the second round, France will have a President who has promised to upset the country’s notorious propensity to strike, whether the majority have voted for him, or merely against his opponent.
The French have a long history of striking: the iFRAP foundation, a liberal think tank, estimates that France loses more days to strikes per year than any other European country, despite having the shortest working week in Europe, a relatively high average wage, and a generous holiday allotment. At face value, it isn’t difficult to see the basis for Fillon’s open objection to the unions, and his promise to lengthen the working week to 39 hours.
However, Fillon’s proposed Thatcherism stretches far beyond unions. He has also promised to reduce immigration, cut 500,000 civil service jobs, remove the wealth tax, limit full adoption to heterosexual couples , and improve relations with Putin.
Far from improving government efficiency, Fillon’s policies pander to the far-right in their promotion of intolerance and support of an international aggressor already revered by Donald Trump. Those on the French left will be forced to choose intolerant right over über-intolerant far-right.
There is, however, some hope. Successful Thatcherism requires huge leadership strength, hence the Iron Lady’s success in taking on the unions. Fillon, who has hovered in ministerial post after ministerial post since 1993, may not be up for the fight.
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