World·Analysis

With François Fillon, France's centre-right party moves further right

France's centre-right party Les Républicains abandons the centre to elect free market, social conservative candidate François Fillon as party leader and presidential hopeful.

Ex-PM's victory upsets almost all expectations and rejigs state of play in run-up to spring election

François Fillon delivers a speech following his victory on Sunday. Stern and low on charisma, he was nicknamed 'Droopy' and 'Mister Nobody' during his tenure as prime minister from 2007 to 2012. (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

France's centre-right party Les Républicains abandoned the centre Sunday night to elect free market, social conservative candidate François Fillon as party leader and presidential hopeful.

It's a victory that upsets almost all expectations and rejigs the state of play in the run-up to next spring's election, seen from here as a showdown with Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, who's clocking in at 30 per cent in popular support.

Two current polls by Harris Interactive and Odoxa suggest Fillon would win that contest. But with five months to go and a leadership race on the left in the offing — not to mention the failings of recent polling — such projections may be no more than guesses.

Rather, after a divisive campaign that was even called "disgusting" by run-off opponent Alain Juppé on Sunday, Fillon's first task is to try to unite the French behind his "radical plan" to reform the country, not to mention the factions of his own party.

Fillon has a clear mandate after capturing 66.5 per cent of the party vote Sunday, but he was not always the favourite.

Stunning reversal

During much of the two-month campaign, Fillon traded places at the back of the pack as seven candidates competed in the establishment right's first-ever primary.

The election is based around two votes set a week apart, the first devised to eliminate all but the final two contenders.

Past French president Nicolas Sarkozy, left, current President François Hollande, centre, and Fillon, the recently nominated presidential contender of the Republican party. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

In the run-up to the first, Fillon's program was largely ignored, as attention focused on the populist excesses of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and on the inclusive message of more moderate frontrunner Alain Juppé, long perceived as the only candidate capable of successfully defeating Le Pen.

But in a stunning reversal, Fillon gained a huge lead in the first round of voting a week ago, eliminating Sarkozy from the race and positioning himself well ahead of Juppé.

Both the media and Juppé were blindsided and had to scramble to catch up with the man and his program, neither of which should have been an enigma.

'Mister Nobody'

Fillon, 62, is an establishment figure if ever there was one. A career politician for 35 years, he's occupied several ministries in successive conservative governments, and he served as prime minister during Sarkozy's presidency from 2007 to 2012.

A stern character low on charisma, he was nicknamed "Droopy" and "Mister Nobody" during his tenure as PM. Even Sarkozy, while insisting he was the boss, once dismissed Fillon as a "collaborator," a word with heavy connotations here and a fierce slight recalling the Second World War Vichy era.

French far-right leader and National Front party president Marine Le Pen. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

But the man who emerged in the week between the primary's two rounds of voting was categorically different.

A father of five and committed Catholic, Fillon recast himself as a defender of family values. He and his Welsh-born wife Penelope raised their children in a medieval chateau near Le Mans, in the Pays de la Loire region 2½ hours by car southwest of Paris.

Known for having opposed gay marriage when it was legalized three years ago, he now promises to restrict adoption rights to heterosexual couples, saying the family should not be subject to "dangerous social experimentation."

On matters of immigration and education, he's struck a nationalist chord, advocating the reintroduction of school uniforms, a renewed emphasis on teaching France's "national story", a reduction in immigration "to its strict minimum," and a crackdown on radical Islam.

Neo-liberal demands

This values-based nativist approach clearly competes head-on with many of the FN's social policies, posing a potential strategy problem for the far right. But in matters foreign and financial, Fillon's outlook is red meat for his opponents on both the left and the far right.

A self-professed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Fillon has proposed a radical break with country's statist economy to make France "a sovereign, modern nation at the head of the EU."

He's promised to slash the number of public service jobs by 500,000 while increasing the work week to 39 hours and raising the retirement age.

Already, three major public sector unions are meeting Tuesday to make plans, while members of France's health sector have called a strike for Wednesday.

'Cleave the country'

"No candidate has ever gone so far in submitting to the neo-liberal demands of the European Union," said the anti-EU Le Pen, whose economic outlook is far more protectionist. "I've always thought he would be a very good candidate."

She may be right.

As political journalist Grégoire Biseau pointed out in Libération on Monday morning, "his program is likely to be rejected by part of the centre, galvanize the fractured left and reinforce the FN's emphasis on statism and sovereignty."

"He's united his camp, but tomorrow he'll cleave the country."

In the last few days of his campaign, Fillion stated: "France is more right-wing than it's ever been," according to the Guardian's Angelique Chrisafis.

Intentionally or not, with this he offered both a conclusion to this campaign and likely the promise of what's to come.

About the Author

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.

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