What a week for French politics. In just a few days, three of the central figures of the past two decades have been pushed into retirement. In an unprecedented move in the Fifth Republic, a first-term incumbent President, François Hollande, announced on Thursday he would not run for re-election. While Mr. Hollande tried to defend his record in a somber speech from the Élysée Palace, he was forced to admit that the decrease in unemployment came “too late” (a spectacular understatement). A “lucid” analysis of the situation, i.e. his abysmal popularity, deterred him for throwing his hat in the race. This opens the way to an open primary in the Socialist party, in which Prime Minister Manuel Valls is expected to run, as well as former Economics Minister Arnaud Montebourg who will mount a challenge from the anti-austerity Left.
On the Right, things have evolved in even more dramatic fashion. This past year, Alain Juppé, the frontrunner of the French presidential election, was sometimes cheekily compared to Hillary Clinton. Like the Democratic candidate, the former Prime Minister (1995-1997) was an unexciting establishment figure, a technocratic centrist hailed for his solid management of the Bordeaux municipality and his experience in politics over three decades. No crowd was marching in the streets chanting his name, but at least he’d provide a bulwark against the three most reviled figures in French politics: Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, and Marine Le Pen. Pollsters and experts agreed, he’d win. Like Hillary Clinton.
You see where this going. In one of the least-exciting referenda for change and renewal ever, the Prime Minister from nine years ago beat the Prime Minister from twenty years ago. François Fillon, formerly Nicolas Sarkozy’s low-key Prime Minister (2007-2012), long lagging at fourth place in the polls, made a large comeback victory in Sunday’s second round of the Republican Primary: 66.5 percent of the vote with a remarkably high turnout for the Right’s first-ever open primary (more than 4 million people). Sarkozy didn’t even make it to the second round. Fillon instantly became the clear front-runner in next June’s French presidential election. With the Left deeply divided and reeling from Hollande’s unpopularity, and an electorate poised for change, this is the Right’s election to lose. A recent poll gives Fillon 66 percent of votes in a potential second round against Marine Le Pen, assuming the Left is eliminated from the running.
Observers have been at pains to pinpoint Fillon ideologically. On the night of his first-round upset, the BBC described him as a centrist, a description that many French would probably have embraced. Fillon’s dignified discretion as Prime Minister made him a popular if mysterious figure, seen as a moderating force at a time when Sarkozy’s hyper-active style bitterly divided the country. And yet, Juppé tried hard to mobilize centrist (and even left-wing) voters by pointing to Fillon’s wide-ranging free-market platform, social conservatism, and pro-Putin positions. Libération, a leading leftist daily, contributed to this campaign by portraying Fillon in a Thatcher whig on its cover—probably a very generous assessment of Fillon’s ideological commitment to structural reform. While many voters undoubtedly wanted to oust two long-standing figures (Sarkozy and Juppé), Fillon is not exactly a fresh face. At 62, he now boasts 35 years of uninterrupted political life, having been elected a Member of Parliament at 27, after replacing his boss when the latter passed away.
Fillon came of age in politics as a “social Gaullist,” in the tradition of his mentor Philippe Séguin, one of the greatest Speakers of France’s Parliament in the 1990s and a key Eurosceptic figure of the French Right. Fillon, alongside Séguin, campaigned against joining the Euro in 1992. This statist, nationalist Right has declined in influence in the past decade. Fillon himself, however, is unlikely to take strong anti-European positions. A pragmatist who doesn’t support withdrawing from the common currency, for example, he will probably continue the current trend wherein the European Council, representing the member states, gains influence relative to the bureaucratic European Commission in the intra-EU balance of force.
In addition, Fillon espouses a Gaullist approach to French foreign policy, advocating independence and a balance between the United States and Russia. This pragmatic approach to maximizing French interests in the tradition of de Gaulle (who however never backed away from the U.S. in key moments like the Cuban missile crisis) has somehow been distorted into dogmatic anti-Americanism by De Gaulle’s disciples. For example, Fillon tweeted a few months ago that Islamic totalitarianism and U.S. imperialism were the main threats facing Europe. As has been widely reported, Fillon has expressed strong pro-Russian sentiments during the campaign, frequently boasting of his personal friendship with Vladimir Putin, whom he met when the latter was Prime Minister of Russia. In the same vein, he advocates support for Assad in Syria and has pointedly refused to call the slaughter of civilians in Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces “war crimes.” Fillon’s personal positions exemplify a larger and well-reported trend within right-wing public opinion in Europe (and the United States), which sees in Vladimir Putin a bulwark of conservative values against the declining morals of the West. But the outcry over Fillon’s troubling embrace of Putinism, which likely wasn’t a motivating factor for voters, shouldn’t obscure the fact that his opponent, media favorite Juppé, was completely out of touch with voter concerns over the security and identity challenges confronting the country. Juppé’s advocacy of a “positive identity” and embrace of diversity struck many voters as naive.
Insiders tried to make Juppé toughen his stance, and he did comply this past year. But at 71, he is hardly able to reinvent himself, and he made a conscious choice to run on his own centrist beliefs, whatever the consequences. This honorable consistency, however, led him to defeat. By contrast, Fillon was seen as the most solid candidate on the Right on both Islamism (about which he wrote a book, called Defeat Islamic Totalitarianism, after the Nice attack) and economics (his program called for slashing public spending and abrogating working time limits). If mainstream pro-European politicians like Alain Juppé can’t resond more effectively to legitimate concerns over the rise of radicalism in the country and the threat it represents to identity, they will continue to lose. They fear that adopting some of the populists’ discourse will ultimately legitimize and reinforce them, and there is indeed a risk of mainstreaming some of the populists’ worst or inefficient solutions, from xenophobia to economic protectionism. But the main reason the National Front is prospering is not that populists have somehow hijacked public discourse. Social media, Russian propaganda, fake news, and so on have little weight compared with the fact that reality—terrorist attacks, the refugee crisis, and the euro crisis—has been quite favorable to the FN’s platform these past several years.
Some make the case that Fillon’s soft populism and social conservatism could make him the strongest barrier against Le Pen’s rising National Front. Despite his low-key style, Fillon regularly blasted the “system” and the elites during his campaign. More importantly, like Sarkozy, he put a strong message on French identity and assimilation at the center of his discourse but appeared more convincing than the former President, whose energetic style betrayed a lack of ideological backbone.
France is clearly not immune to the populist upsurge on both the Left and Right. Le Pen has captured impressive results in recent European and regional elections, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-Left populist, is rising in the polls. A worst-case scenario would even see a face-off between the two in the second round, an option that seems much less plausible with Hollande out of the race. The National Front always fares better when unpopular incumbents run. Valls or Montebourg could be strong first-time candidates, and Emmanuel Macron, the young and popular social democrat who resigned from the government this summer, is running as an independent.
While recent electoral results in the United Kingdom and the United States should immunize us against any kind of complacency, the sudden outpouring of concern over Le Pen’s potential presidential victory seems excessive at this point in time. The two-round voting system makes it necessary for a candidate to gather an absolute majority of votes, a difficult feat for the National Front based on its results so far, especially in a country where turnout for presidential elections hovers around 80 percent. Finally, in contrast to the United States, where a center-Right voter who wanted to sanction the Left had no other credible choice than Donald Trump in the general election, French who want change without embracing the National Front can naturally vote for Les Republicans. If the election were held today, Le Pen would not win it.
Of course, France is tragically not immune to a catastrophic security event that could dramatically change voter outlook. But even then, Le Pen wouldn’t have much to offer apart from an outdated outcry over immigration while Fillon and Valls are both tough law-and-order politicians. Paradoxically, as Fillon, Valls, and Macron are all free market reformers, Le Pen could end up leaving aside much of her nativist discourse and focus on protectionism, vying with Mélenchon for ownership of a left-leaning economic platform. Le Pen will have a hard time making the case that Valls, a socialist Prime Minister who has imposed a state of emergency for more than a year and does not shy away from openly denouncing “Islamofascism,” is blinded by political correctness.
Meanwhile, Valls and Fillon will approach the question of integration from different angles, and that will be one of the central tenets of the campaign. While Valls is more comfortable speaking about universal republican values like secularism, Fillon will appeal to a nostalgic idea of eternal French identity rooted in Christian values. It might appeal to voters, but can it help integrate millions of French Muslims who often feel alienated from this narrative? Whatever the outcome of the election, the French campaign will be a formidable intellectual laboratory for solutions to Europe’s challenges.