Conservative Fillon Triumphs in French Presidential Primary

Republican voters pick François Fillon over Alain Juppé to lead their party into next year’s election.

Former French prime ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillon
Former French prime ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillon (UN Geneva/EPP)
  • French conservatives on Sunday nominated former prime minister François Fillon as their presidential candidate.
  • Alain Juppé, another former prime minister, lost the second voting round in the Republicans’ first-ever presidential primary with 33 to 67 percent support.
  • Given the unpopularity of the ruling Socialist Party, Fillon is now the favorite to win the presidency in 2017.
  • His core supporters are the “discreet bourgeoisie” of France’s more affluent provinces.
  • Fillon is relatively pro-Russian and could, as president, clash with Germany and other EU countries that support a hard line against Moscow.
Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20163:31 PM

We know who Vladimir Putin wants to win. The Russian leader praised Fillon this week as “a highly professional and decent man” and said he would welcome a pro-Russian tilt in French foreign policy. “For our part, we will do everything to facilitate [better relations],” Putin said.

Franco-Russian relations have soured under François Hollande. The Socialist took a hard line against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, spearheading the European campaign for sanctions. His government has also denounced Russia’s alliance with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and described the bombing of Aleppo by Russian planes as a war crime.

Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to France, writes in the Financial Times that Fillon, despite his strong support for NATO, has quite a different vision of how to manage relations with Moscow.

He has long opposed economic sanctions in response to the occupation of Crimea. He sees the Russian military presence in Syria as potentially helpful in bringing the conflict to an end — not that different from the view of US president-elect Donald Trump. If France chooses Mr Fillon as its next president, quite a lot could change, at home and abroad.

Unlike career diplomats in France, Fillon says he is not afraid of a Putin-Trump pact. “I wish for it,” he said.

This has attracted the ire of not just Fillon’s center-right rival, Juppé, who criticized him for his “extreme kindness for Putin”; Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, has lashed out as well, saying, “Of course we have to talk to Russia. We talk to Russia all the time. But that doesn’t mean we should align ourselves with Russia.”

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20163:37 PM
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)

Fillon’s supporters aren’t blue-collar populists like Marine 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.

Click here to read more.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20165:07 PM

Angelique Chrisafis reports for The Guardian that Fillon’s popularity on the right also has something to do with his hardline views on French identity and Islam.

The conservative has criticized history classes that teach pupils to “doubt” the “national story” of France and warned that radical Islam is “corrupting” French Muslims.

He promised administrative controls on Islam in France, including dissolving the Salafi movement and banning preaching in Arabic. This summer, he supported a law to ban burkini full-body swimsuits from French beaches.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20166:11 PM

Polling stations closed at 7 PM local time.

At 5, nearly three million votes had been cast, up 4.5 percent from turnout at the same time last week.

Predictions were fewer people would vote in the second round, the assumption being that centrist and center-left voters only participated in the primary last week in order to knock Nicolas Sarkozy out of the contest.

Given the stakes, however — the winner tonight could very well be the next president of France — it shouldn’t be too surprising either that many still made the journey to the polling stations.

Besides, it’s a Sunday and it’s France. What else are people going to do?

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20166:19 PM

As we wait for the first results, let’s hear from the left side of the political spectrum where Manuel Valls is talking up his own presidential ambitions.

The incumbent prime minister tells Le Journal du Dimanche that he wants to break with the “negativity” on the left and will always be motivated by a “sense of duty” to the state.

In the interview, Valls blames President François Hollande for leaving the Socialist Party in “disarray”.

As I reported here last month, Hollande lost what little goodwill he had left when Un président ne devrait pas dire ça… (“A President Should Not Say That…”) appeared: a 600-page volume in which Hollande confesses his unfiltered opinions of other Socialist Party bigwigs to reporters from Le Monde. Its publication dumbfounded the French political establishment. Hollande’s approval rating sunk to 4 percent. (That’s not a typo.)

I’ve also been telling you to keep an eye on Valls. I still believe he is the most viable (potential) contender on the center-left — and that includes the former economy minister, Emmanuel Macron.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20167:33 PM

Fillon is leading with nearly 70 percent support. That is based on results from 2,121 polling stations, or about 20 percent of the total.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20167:49 PM

With around a third of polling stations reporting results, Fillon is still in the lead with 69 percent support.

It doesn’t look like we’re in for another surprise — and that Fillon is on track to become the next head of state.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20168:12 PM

Juppé has conceded defeat and endorsed Fillon for president.

With 6,723 polling stations reporting results, Fillon is at 68 percent support.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20168:20 PM

In a victory speech, Fillon says conservative voters found in his campaign “the values that are dear to them.”

I will defend those values and we will share them with everyone that loves France.

As I reported earlier, the biggest differences between Fillon and Juppé were on social issues.

Fillon personally opposes abortion and marriage equality and has vowed to ban adoption for gay couples and block medically assisted procreation for female same-sex couples.

Juppé rejected those views as “backward-looking,” but they endeared Fillon to traditional voters in small-town France.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20169:35 PM

“Odd mix happy tonight,” tweets Sophie Pedder, the Paris bureau chief of The Economist: “social conservatives, economic liberals — and Russians.”

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 20169:52 PM

Libération writes that Fillon is in step with his party but out of step with the country.

That may be wishful thinking on the left-wing newspaper’s part. Polls suggest Fillon would easily beat Marine Le Pen in a presidential runoff. His social views may be a little out of date, but even Libération recognizes that the French are no longer afraid of what it still calls “brutal” economic policies.

Yes, there are contradictions:

Everybody wants protection (for themselves) and flexibility (for others); public services that are close and lower taxes. A thirst for freedom, but a demand for equality. Both less and more state.

What else is new?

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 201610:10 PM

Arnaud Bouthéon argues in Le Figaro, a conservative newspaper, that Fillon challenges voters: If they love France, they must make an effort, work together and be prepared to sacrifice.

Whereas the left and the Front national thrive on victimization and assistance, the principled right calls for commitment and action.

Fillon, writes Bouthéon, tells the French not what they want to hear but what they need to hear.

That’s a little fawning, but it’s not altogether wrong. Fillon does speak honestly about the economic and fiscal challenges France faces. Politicians of both the left and the right have for years downplayed the need for reform and underdelivered when they did promise cuts and liberalizations.

But Fillon is not the only one. Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister, is running for president on a similar platform. He doesn’t mince words either when he talks about the need to unclog the French economy. This is less about any one candidate and more about a growing realization in France that things really need to change this time.

András Tóth-Czifra Andras Toth-Czifra 27 Nov 201610:59 PM

With the victory of François Fillon, Russia’s Vladimir Putin can be sure of at least a small but significant diplomatic victory in 2017.

The pro-government media in Russia has been predicting Fillon’s victory while giving ample space to the far-right Front national in the past weeks.

While Russia’s preferred candidate is still Marine Le Pen, who would probably be able to unleash an unprecedented disruptive force on the European Union, Fillon, known (partly) for his views encouraging closer cooperation with Russia is a safe bet for Putin. An establishment politician, he may be more likely as president to play see-saw with the German chancellor and the Russian president.

Shaun Riordan Shaun Riordan 27 Nov 201611:17 PM
French prime minister François Fillon in Paris, June 28, 2010
French prime minister François Fillon in Paris, June 28, 2010 (British Embassy)

François Fillon’s victory is not the only Western move in Vladimir Putin’s direction.

The Bulgarians recently elected a pro-Russian president. So did Moldova. Combined with Donald Trump’s much restated affirmation that he can do business with Putin, political events seem to be moving rapidly in the Russian president’s favor.

This will pose major challenges to Europe.

Assuming that Fillon is elected president next year, the immediate existential threat to the European Union may be reduced. But differences between France and Germany over how to handle Russia will become more obvious. Those European countries that support a hard line against Moscow may find themselves isolated. It is difficult to see how even the pretence of a common foreign policy could be maintained under such circumstances.

Click here to read more.

Shaun Riordan Shaun Riordan 27 Nov 201611:18 PM

Received wisdom and opinion polls argue that Fillon will beat Marine Le Pen in a second voting round. But received wisdom may be out of date and the polls, yet again, simply wrong.

Like Trump in America, Le Pen may prove more successful at winning over disillusioned working-class voters than expected. Unlike her father, she is skilled politician who has managed to position herself as the lead defender of French republican values against Islam — a role to which Fillon also aspires.

She also appeals increasingly to formerly communist and Socialist Party voters who feel abandoned by their metropolitan elite leadership. The extent to which Fillon emphasizes the need for radical, neoliberal reform may help Le Pen reinforce her appeal to traditional left-wing voters.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens 27 Nov 201611:25 PM

96 percent of the votes have been counted. Fillon is still the clear winner with 67 percent support against 33 percent for Juppé.

That concludes our live coverage of the Republican primary. Thanks to András and Shaun for sharing their views and thank you, dear reader, for being with us tonight. Please return next Sunday, when we will be providing live analysis and commentary about the Austrian presidential election and the constitutional referendum in Italy.

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