François Fillon Leads Revolt of France’s “Discreet Bourgeoisie”

Middle-income voters in small-town France have lost patience after five years of feckless socialism.

Former French prime minister François Fillon attends a meeting with other European conservative leaders in Brussels, March 1, 2012
Former French prime minister François Fillon attends a meeting with other European conservative leaders in Brussels, March 1, 2012 (EPP)

François Fillon’s unexpectedly strong showing in the French center-right’s primary last weekend has send shockwaves through the French political establishment.

Fillon’s remaining opponent, Alain Juppé — another former prime minister — has lashed out at what he calls a “brutal” economic program and a “conservative, backward-looking” vision for the country.

Fillon isn’t shying away from the label “Thatcherite”, which was once toxic in France. He wants to cut benefits and public-sector jobs in order to bring government spending down from 57 to under 50 percent of gross domestic product. He is also campaigning on longer working hours, a higher retirement age and €40 billion worth of tax cuts for businesses.

That’s more radical than what Juppé has in mind, but both men want to roll back the French welfare state and eliminate taxes and restrictive labor policies that make the country less competitive than its neighbors.

It’s on social issues where they truly diverge — and the differences between them reflect a divided France.

Traditional voters

Fillon hasn’t been ambiguous about his views. A religious man, he opposes both abortion and gay marriage, although he says he doesn’t plan to repeal either.

He has vowed to ban adoption for gay couples, however, and opposes medically assisted procreation for female same-sex couples.

It’s positions like these that have endeared Fillon to traditional voters in small-town France.

Nicholas Vinocur reports for Politico how Fillon won the endorsement of the Catholic current in the Republican Party named Sens Commun (“Common Sense”). It “provided legions of campaign volunteers in France’s traditional western regions,” he writes, which is where Fillon won outright majorities in the first voting round of the presidential primary on Sunday.

Nationwide, Fillon received 44 percent support against 29 percent for Juppé. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, placed third with 21 percent.

Sarkozy did best in the postindustrial north of France and along the Mediterranean coast, two regions where Marine Le Pen’s Front national is also popular.

Juppé drew most of his support from the major cities as well as the region around Bordeaux in the southeast, where he is mayor.

Few of his voters are likely to switch in the second voting round today. Fillon’s challenge is to convince Sarkozy’s base to turn out and support him.

That is, if the left doesn’t do his job for him.

Hysteria

In Paris high society, reaction to Fillon’s candidacy has bordered on the hysterical.

Laurent Joffrin of the left-wing newspaper Libération argues that Fillon’s “aggressive Catholicism” is on par with political Islam.

Pierre Bergé, a co-owner of the more centrist Le Monde, compared Fillon’s base to the collaborationist Vichy government in World War II.

Fillon responded: “These people need to understand that because of their arrogance and their self-satisfaction, they are making themselves into electoral agents for Marine Le Pen.”

He is right.

Just like liberal America unwittingly radicalized rural conservatives and working-class voters in the recent presidential election campaign by emphasizing social justice at the expense of bread-and-butter issues, the metropolitan elite in France is only making a hard-right victory next year more likely by disparaging the traditional views of La France profonde.

Discreet bourgeoisie

Fillon’s supporters aren’t blue-collar populists like Le Pen’s. They are the sort of people whom Jonathan Haidt has identified in The American Interest as status-quo conservatives. They are temperamentally wary of change but can be drawn into an alliance with authoritarians on the right, according to Haidt, if they believe that progressives have subverted the nation’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political action is only way they can stand athwart history anymore yelling “Stop!”

In the Financial Times, Anne-Sylvaine Chassany describes the same group as “the discreet bourgeoisie” of France’s “more affluent provinces.”

Almost half of those who backed Fillon last week were retirees, she points out. A third were high-earning executives. 60 percent came from provincial towns; only one in five lives in Paris.

“Like most French, these voters are not particularly drawn to the free-market theories of former British premier Margaret Thatcher,” writes Chassany, even if Fillon cites her as an inspiration.

But they feel that everything else that has been tried has not managed to halt France’s decline or curb unemployment.

The jobless rate is as high as when the Socialists came to power in 2012. Gay marriage is now legal, but growth is lackluster and France has gone through several terrorist attacks. To some, it feels the country has changed in all the wrong ways. What they like about Fillon is that he promises to shake up what needs to be shaken up and restore what needs to be restored.

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