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François Fillon wins French primary to be candidate for the right

Source: guardian | Monday, 28 November 2016


François Fillon, the socially conservative former prime minister who plans to shrink the French state, has won the primary race to become the French right’s presidential candidate next spring.

Fillon, 62, gained support in the final days of the primary race after writing a book on the dangers of “Islamic totalitarianism” in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France and defending a tough line on French national identity. He beat the more moderate centrist, Alain Juppé, the 71-year-old mayor of Bordeaux.

With 95% of ballots counted, Fillon had garnered 66.5% of the votes while Juppé trailed with 33.2%.

Who is François Fillon – the man who ended Sarkozy's dream?

France’s two-round presidential elections in April and May are being watched as the next possible shakeup of the political system, after Donald Trump won the US presidency this month.

Polls in France have consistently shown that the far-right Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, will make it to the final round runoff but that it would be difficult for her to win. Fillon is now the favourite to face her and win the presidency next year.

In his victory speech, Fillon said the Socialist François Hollande’s presidency had been “pathetic”. France “wanted action” and had to be overhauled in a way that it “hasn’t been for 30 years”. He said Francehad a huge need for respect, pride and, overall, authority.

After a campaign in which he defended French national identity, he said people had voted for him because he represented “French values”. He said “I will defend those values and we will share them with everyone who, with their differences, loves France.”

On the campaign trail, Fillon, who will stand for the Republican party, argued: “France is more rightwing than it has ever been,” and that he was the only one able to tap into that mood and win France’s “ideological battle”.

He warned that France was “on the verge of revolt” and said his plan to slash half a million public sector jobs, reduce the welfare state, cut taxes for the rich and loosen business regulations was the only possible response for a demoralised country struggling with mass unemployment, a sluggish economy and a major terrorist threat.

“I’ll do everything for entrepreneurs!” he declared at his final rally in Paris, promising to free up business and create jobs to tackle a stubbornly high unemployment rate of about 10%.

Juppé, after losing what was a battle for the soul of the French right, described himself as a “free man” who had never compromised on his beliefs. He congratulated Fillon and asked his own supporters to work for “calm and reconciliation” in France.

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François Fillon casts his ballot in Paris. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/EPA

Fillon, a career politician for 35 years and a symbol of the traditionalist provincial right, is a fan of Margaret Thatcher. But his economic programme – though radical in terms of breaking with the statist traditions of the French right – falls far short of Thatcher’s.

He does not intend to privatise state companies and France’s traditionally high public spending will remain significant. Fillon served as prime minister from 2007-2012 under the unpopular president Nicolas Sarkozy, playing a key role in an administration that promised economic reform but failed to deliver.

Yet he has successfully convinced the rightwing electorate that he represents radical change.

Fillon is a Catholic traditionalist who deliberately appealed to the conservatism of the religious right and wants to increase state benefits for families.

He complained about being attacked as a “medieval reactionary” during the campaign because, having voted against France’s recent introduction of same-sex marriage, he promised to roll back certain parental rights for same-sex couples. He said it was his private belief that abortion was not a fundamental right but promised not to change French abortion law.

How François Fillon became the French right's new hope

Fillon, who is on first-name terms with Vladimir Putin after they served as prime ministers in the same period, has advocated a stridently pro-Putin policy towards Russia. He said Russia was no threat, should be a partner in Syria and that European sanctions against Russia should be lifted. He said the fight against Islamic State meant France should not rule out cooperating with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Fillon has taken a hard line on Islamic extremism as well as the place of Islam in France, warning that “radical islam is corrupting some of our Muslim fellow citizens”. Over the summer, he said he was in favour of banning burkinis, or full-body swimsuits, from French beaches.

“No, France is not a multicultural nation,” Fillon said during the final TV debate, adding that foreigners who came to France must assimilate. He said: “When you come to someone’s house, by courtesy, you don’t take over.”

Sarkozy came third in the right’s first round vote last week, leaving the field open to Fillon and Juppé.

The spotlight will now fall on the governing French Socialist party, which is yet to choose its presidential candidate and which will hold its own primary race in January.

The bitterly divided party has been galvinised by Fillon’s nomination, hoping to unite voters against a “French Thatcher”, saying he threatens France’s cherished social model, the wide-ranging social safety net of generous unemployment benefits, pensions and healthcare.

Hollande is expected to announce within days whether he will stand for re-election. His party is in disarray and there are serious doubts among Socialists about Hollande’s chances of even making it past the first round. He is the least popular French president since the second world war, with his satisfaction rating in one recent poll as low as 4%.

Divisions were evident when the prime minister, Manuel Valls, on Sunday left his options open as a potential challenger to Hollande. Valls told the French weekly Journal du Dimanche that he wanted to dispel the idea that the left had no chance of retaining power.

Nicolas Sarkozy concedes defeat in French primary.

Emmanuel Macron, Hollande’s rebellious former economy minister, has also launched an independent, centrist, outsider bid for the French presidency, promising to lead a people’s “democratic revolution” against the “vacuous” political system.

The hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who this weekend won the backing of the French Communist party, is also likely to draw votes away from the Socialists.


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