He surged from the abyss of opinion polls and in four weeks managed to eradicate two rivals whose ambitions had dominated the past 30 years of French conservative politics. François Fillon , who won the presidential primary election for the Republicans party on Sunday, is now the uncontested leader of the center-right in France. But in proclaiming that he has gone from “Mr. Nobody” to the next president, Fillon’s new sycophants are a bit too quick to jump to conclusions.
Although French campaigns are much shorter than the exhausting American ones, the presidential election will not take place for another five months. However remarkable Fillon’s success on his own turf — 66.5 percent of the votes in Sunday’s second round — the new conservative champion will need to convince three times as many French citizens from various political and cultural leanings if he is to comfortably pass the first round of the general election. If he does, he would likely confront far-right Marine Le Pen in the second round on May 7.
Fillon is bad news for the far right. He would not commit the mistake of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president he defeated in the first round, by copying Le Pen’s oratory or her Trump-style “anti-system” populism. On the contrary, a practicing Catholic with five children, the president of “Les Républicains” is the embodiment of the French establishment, entrenched in old bourgeois, provincial tradition.
An elected politician since the age of 27, Fillon has quietly and consistently played to concerns about identity and values, which have proved to be more acute than pollsters had assumed. He has condemned Islamism and pleaded against multiculturalism on the premise that citizens have to abide by the same principles whatever their origins or religion. The noise and rattle of Le Pen’s arguments, with their subtle racial overtones, do not go down quite as well. The shift already shows: according to the first polls conducted since last Sunday, Fillon would defeat Le Pen if elections were to be held now.
The National Front leader has been prompt to realize she has no other choice but to attack Fillon on his economic and social platform. The bazookas are ready: Isn’t he the “ultra-liberal” disciple of that English witch Margaret Thatcher? Hasn’t he promised to erase 500,000 jobs in the public sector, curb the unions, end the 35-hour workweek and even revisit the welfare system? That could be more than enough to energize the blue-collar workers, teachers and civil servants who have enlarged the core of the far right.
The paradox is that the Socialist party would use exactly the same arguments against Fillon — if only it had a leader. The left primaries are supposed to be held next January. Four candidates have decided to skip the process, including Emmanuel Macron, the young “neoliberal” former economy minister who is running on his own. Six minor candidates are listed so far.
Should incumbent François Hollande join in? The mere fact that an outgoing president would have to submit to primaries is an offense to the monarchial tradition of the French presidency. But four and a half years after his victory over Sarkozy, Hollande is so discredited that his few advisers disagree — many have already left the Elysée for better options. In the end, the president is likely to announce his own candidacy before mid-December.
That leaves leftist voters at a loss. Some have opted for the far left, while others have drifted to the far right, as the last regional elections demonstrated. The electoral base of the Socialist Party has shrunk. A small number of activists remain, divided among quarreling factions. On the extreme left, the Left Party’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a flamboyant speaker now busy mourning Fidel Castro, has the support of what remains of the Communist Party. He is currently doing better in the polls than Hollande.
The bottom line is that the left has no chance to make it past the first round of the presidential election. What are leftist voters likely to do then? It is worth noting that in the first round of the conservative primary, which was open to all voters, some 14 percent of them voted for former centrist prime minister Alain Juppé to oust Sarkozy. In the second round, almost the same number supported Juppé to weaken Fillon, whose social and cultural conservatism does not suit urban society. The new conservative leader is against abortion and gay marriage, although he has promised not to question the major laws which have legalized them.
So how will these will voters behave next May if they have to choose between Fillon and Le Pen? The latest poll, published this Tuesday, gives an interesting indication. Whereas the high turn out in the primaries was due mostly to older, more affluent participants, the polling sample included a more varied segment of the population, including low income and suburban voters.
The results are loud and clear: In the first round, Hollande would get 8 percent of the vote, far behind Macron, a surprising third. As expected, Fillon and Le Pen take the lead. On the second round, Fillon would crush Le Pen, 66 percent to 34 percent. “Le Président des Républicains” would become “le Président de la République.”But it is only a poll — and there are five months to go.