Opinion

France's dark horse conservative candidate

Meet the man who could become the next French president

It seems that politics is undergoing strange realignments all over the planet. In America, Donald Trump has caused a civil war within the Republican Party. In Britain, Theresa May is trying to redefine British Toryism for a post-Brexit era. And in France, we might be seeing the emergence of a strong constituency for U.S.-style conservatism, both free market and socially conservative, even as it looks increasingly extinct in its home.

In the first round of France's presidential primary on Sunday, former Primer Minister François Fillon surged to nearly 45 percent of the vote, while former French President Nicolas Sarkozy came in third, and was thus booted out of the running. Alain Juppé, another former prime minister who had been riding high in the polls, earned just 29 percent of the vote.

For Fillon, this is a stunner. For most of the campaign, he had been polling in the low single digits, surging only in the past two weeks, and only then into a strong third or distant second. But Sunday, it was a positive landslide. Now, Fillon will face Juppé in a second round of voting. While anything is possible, it looks like he really could become the French conservative party candidate, and then perhaps go on to become France's next president. Here's what we know about Fillon, and what he could mean for France.

Fillon is a hard man to dislike. Throughout his political career, he was always the protégé and the loyal footsoldier. He won election to Parliament in 1981 as that crop's youngest member after the untimely death of his earliest political mentor, whose seat he took over, rising through the ranks of the French right as an ally of Philippe Séguin, a garrulous gaullist and one of the most respected statesmen of the era. After Séguin retired from politics, Fillon became Nicolas Sarkozy's right-hand man, earning one of the longest tenures as prime minister in the history of the French Fifth Republic, without a doubt the toughest job in French politics, thanks to his low-key style, executive competence, and loyalty to his boss.

But cutting a grey figure doesn't mean having no backbone. Fillon is also known for being the occasionally tough truth-teller. He made headlines quickly after being appointed prime minister, responding to requests for more spending by saying that France was "bankrupt," cementing his public image as a sort of old family doctor who's not going to be the life of the party, but who you know will tell it to you straight. He had previously written a book titled France Can Handle the Truth, and his campaign slogan this cycle has been "Vote your beliefs." At a time when French voters feel like they're being constantly lied to, that anti-charisma has been a formidable weapon, especially when you notice that Fillon stands alone among his major rivals in having never been indicted or sentenced in a corruption case.

During the campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy dismissed his old right-hand man as someone who had been merely an "aide." This was a blessing in disguise for Fillon, who could now claim credit for competence while laying every negative of Sarkozy's legacy at his former boss' door.

In hindsight, it looks like Fillon's victory can be attributed to his looking credible as the man of both continuity and change — continuity because of his experience and temperament, but change paradoxically because he had been written off by the pundits and the pollsters as yesterday's news.

In one of those campaign-making moments, during the last primary debate, Fillon shut down both his opponents and the moderators' suggestion to allow more cross-examining between the candidates, suddenly asserting himself as the man in charge on the stage. "I've been number two my entire life," he seemed to be saying, "but now I'm not going to take it anymore, and I'm here to lead."

But Fillon's victory goes beyond character and personal narrative. Indeed, his candidacy looks increasingly like an oddity in French political life. He is as close as it gets to a U.S.-style conservative, both fiscally and socially.

Fillon openly claims the mantle of free-market advocate, and regularly mentions his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, traditionally some of the most toxic things one can say in French politics. His platform promises the steepest spending cuts of any of his rivals, and sweeping deregulation, particularly of the labor market. He wants to blunt his spending cuts' slowing effect on the economy with — wait for it — sweeping tax cuts, particularly on the rich.

But Fillon may herald something even more profound: the return of militant Catholics to prominence in French politics. Stunning both the country and the world, France's activists against same-sex marriage famously turned out millions in the streets to protest François Hollande's same-sex marriage bill. Since then, political observers have been wondering whether La Manif Pour Tous, as the movement is called, can actually bring people to the polls and influence politics directly, in the mold of the United States' Christian right. Sens Commun, the partisan political wing of La Manif, endorsed Fillon, and polling indicates that the votes of self-identified conservative Catholics may have been crucial in his victory.

Fillon is by no means a heart-on-his-sleeve religious fire-breather, but he remains temperamentally conservative. While politicians both left and right speak only of "laïcité," France's increasingly illiberal version of the separation of church and state, Fillon warns that secularism is meaningless without religious liberty. While Fillon has said he will not overturn the same-sex marriage bill, he has vowed to block adoption and surrogacy for same-sex couples.

It's not so surprising that after four years of an astonishingly unpopular socialist government, French conservatives might vote for an avowedly free market politician. But it will certainly be remembered that the self-conscious Catholic vote might have played a big role in putting Fillon over the top, for this definitely changes the calculus within the French right.

If François Fillon wins the presidency while staying true to this political life, he might redefine France's politics for a generation. Not bad for the man who was always somebody else's number two.

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