Following François Fillon’s victory in the primary elections for France’s centre-right Republican Party, Josh Eyre talked to Théo Bourgery and Felix Keser about where France is heading.

Josh Eyre: Théo, could you tell us a little about what has been happening in French politics recently?

Théo Bourgery: Francois Fillon won the primaries for the Republican party, the right-wing party in France, meaning he will be a candidate for the presidential elections next year. The Socialist party, on the other hand, has its primary in January. To put Fillon’s victory into context, this is the first time the Republican Party has held a primary. Before this, the party would normally agree on a single leader, but since no leader came out on top, they decided to go through with a primary, in which Fillon won a landslide victory over Alain Juppé with more than 66% of the vote.

Felix Keser: It’s interesting to see the polls get it so wrong once again. They predicted a Juppé win, while depicting Fillon as an underdog outsider. It’s funny because as nobody was expecting him to win, a lot of people (including his opponents) recognised his popularity and were giving him a lot of credit for what the right had achieved thanks to him. Many agreed that ‘Francois’ put the most work into shaping a strong narrative for the centre-right in the run up to the election.

JE: So why did they think he wouldn’t win?

TB: There are two main reasons. All the MPs were in favour of Fillon. He had the most integrity, but we need to remember that the primary was open to the whole French electorate, not just the Republican party. For many, the primaries were all about kicking former president Nicolas Sarkozy out of the running. A lot of people voted strategically to block Sarkozy. A lot of people are saying that if non-party members hadn’t been able to vote in the primary, Sarkozy would have won. So there’s an anti-Sarkozy sentiment which has played into Fillon’s hands, but I think more importantly, in the front of people’s minds, is that France has suffered three terrorist attacks in the last 18 months, with over 250 fatalities. People want to turn back to having someone strong in charge of the state. France is based on this idea that we have a strong leader as a president. Fillon, with his conservative values, embodies this better than any of the other candidates.

FK: Fillon has always been a rather reserved politician, not outspoken. As a minister under Sarkozy he was in the background, sticking to his role, so people were thinking ‘Ok, he’s not going to be outspoken, he’s not going to go for it, he prefers the backseat to a leader position.’ Now, looking at why he might have won, it is really important to bear in mind the scare around Brexit, with Trump, with these far-right parties gaining popularity, we have the media saying ‘Brexit is happening, Trump has won, so Marine Le Pen is going to become the President of France.’ The National Front, our extreme right party, which is completely anti-globalisation, anti-immigration and anti-EU, is now so central in French elections that we have a centre-right party that has to be very strategic to win votes from them. Here, Fillon played it well and gained points. He knows France wants a strong leader, and he saw an opportunity to take some of the narrative of the extreme right, of Marine Le Pen, by building immigration into the centre of his platform, by talking about strengthening the external borders of Europe and playing again on the fear of the attacks that have been happening in France.

JE: What do you think Fillon’s victory says about France in a bigger-picture kind of way? You say lot of people who wouldn’t consider themselves right-wing voted in the centre-right primaries because they didn’t want Sarkozy to win. How is this indicative of the general mood in France? Where is the ‘median voter’?

TB: There are a couple of factors we should be aware of here. The first is terrorism and security more generally. France wants someone who has the power to protect the state. The second is around social conservatism. Bear in mind that in 2013 France passed a law for gay marriage and gay adoption. A large part of the French population was opposed to this law, arguing that it went against French Christian values. So there’s this Christian discourse that has come out very strongly in the media since 2013, it is a lot more powerful than before and you hear it much more often. This is something people think they need. They want to return to more traditional values, those traditional Christian values we have lost through globalisation.

FK: You can see this with the headscarf ban too…

JE: It’s weird because there’s secularism on one hand and… Christian secularism on the other?

TB: Ah we could talk about secularism for a long time, that’s a big topic in itself. But, to bring it back, I think it’s a need for physical security and also for security over our values, which for many people means Christian, right-wing, conservative values. I think Fillon embodied these values in a very natural way.

FK: Something that liberal globalists have forgotten, or chosen to put aside, is patriotism and a strong state, which are very important to bring people together in a country, right?

TB: We call it republicanism.

FK: You see it everywhere around the world. It’s a big reason for how things are going as they are. It makes me think of Kofi Annan’s speech in Davos in 1999, a few years after becoming Secretary-General of the UN. Arguing that being blinded by the positive aspects of  globalisation was going to have a huge effect on national politics, and that by turning completely outwards without focusing enough on the long term would bring back the ‘isms’, populism, protectionism and ethnic chauvinism, and we’ve seen this happening. In some ways we have become so liberal and so progressive that we’ve forgotten about our nations and patriotic values, which cannot be pushed aside, and is the glue that brings together people from all corners of society, creating a sense of belonging and purpose. This relates to the question of the EU as a whole, too. I don’t think England ever really had this, but countries like Spain or France or the Netherlands used to be very proud to be in the European Union because it meant their country was at the table with the big guys. Now there’s the fear that we’re losing control and that our national leaders aren’t putting France or America or the UK ‘first’, so we’re turning back inwards and even in a sense away from progressive values we’ve been working hard to make an integral part of our societies.

TB: We’re turning back more to what defines a nation and Fillon offers an appealing vision for what this is.

FK: Fillon made this clear in his recent article in Le Monde where he maps out his foreign policy strategy, arguing that what we need is a strong ‘sovereign’ France, in a Europe respectful of nations, whatever that means…

JE: But it sounds good!

FK: Precisely, and he knows that it is an appealing message. Vagueness is strategic!

JE: How do you think this sits with the Front National, do you think they could win?

FK: I don’t think we can rule it out. I think there is a lower chance of them winning now that Fillon has integrated some of their salient issues in his platform, so voters who were going to vote Front National may now vote for him. Obviously, it’s a slippery slope. How far is the centre-right party willing to shift to the right to gain those votes?

TB: If you look at Fillon’s programme, it can be divided into two areas. The first one is social conservatism, the second is economic liberalism. So he’s talking about privatising healthcare, he is getting rid of 500,000 civil servants over five years, he’s increasing VAT and taking away limits on the working week for the public sector. We need to bear in mind that the people who are going to be hit first by this are the poorest and to an extent the middle classes. And so, the Front National, we can’t rule them out, because even though they could agree on the Republicans’ social platform, they can take the angle that Fillon is an economic threat to the poorest layers of the French society, so we can’t overrule Marine Le Pen just because Fillon won.

JE: Hollande is one of the least popular presidents France has ever. How will Hollande’s presidency play into this election?

TB: He is the least popular president we have ever had. The proportion of people who say they are very satisfied with Hollande has fallen to 4%, which is close to zero. He published a book this year called A president should not say this, about 600 pages written from 70 hours of interviews with a couple of journalists. In this he exposed foreign policy secrets, he went against the French football team… It’s pretty scary. People question his ability to be elected again, but he does have a clear platform of social democratism. He has no charisma, but he has a clear platform. [Since this interview, François Hollande agreed to step down from 2017 election race]. 

FK: The French are inherently resistant to change, particularly when it comes to the French social model. Based on what Theo’s arguments about Fillon, if it really comes to Fillon versus a stronger status quo position on the left, it would be harder to call.

TB: I wouldn’t make a bet on that. Look, he’s won so massively, he’s got 66% in the primaries, it you agree with his platforms, you would think that if people are voting for him they are agreeing to be shaken up. Whoever runs for the left, whoever runs for each party, the election platforms will be security, values, Europe and immigration.

FK: Europe is in such a panic mode at the moment. Fillon is an interesting candidate in this respect because he isn’t anti-Europe per-se, but he is opposed to a more integrated Europe, which is the debate we want to have. He’s not being very clear on this, which is helping him take away some of the support from the Front National, who have anti-Europeanism as one of their biggest pillars.

TB: This election proves that the French people are willing to question the relationship we have with Europe.

FK: Fillon has a good relationship with Putin. It’s clear that they have mutual respect for each other. If elected, he would renege on sanctions against Russia and probably build stronger ties with the east.

François Fillon, presidential candidate for France's centre-right Republican party, appears with Russian president Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)
François Fillon, presidential candidate for France’s centre-right Republican party, appears with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2013. (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)

JE: To wrap up, what should we be looking out for over the next few months, in the run up to the election?

TB: Fillon’s victory has confirmed the parameters of the debate. It’s social issues, it’s Europe, it’s economic policy to a certain extent. The Socialist primaries come on the 22nd and 29th of January. France will enter election mode at the end of January, which means parliament shuts down, there are no more debates and the candidates begin to roam the country campaigning. At the end of April we have the election, and if there is a run off we should know the president by May 8th. A month later we have the elections for the legislative assembly.

FK: It will also be interesting to follow Emmanuel Macron’s campaign as an independent candidate, and how he adapts populism to a more liberal, social democratic stance. This could be something positive. After all these years of rising populist discourse on the far right wing, some of the more dynamic leaders around the center are thinking ‘Wow, this is exciting, let’s take some of these success strategies and apply them to things that we know actually work’. We’ve been opening up our countries and agreeing on a progressive-forward looking world order since the second world war, we’ve been trying to ensure lasting peace in Europe, but now we see countries closing on each other again, we see increasing protectionism, populism, anti-immigration stances, anti-international treatises. Maybe a dose of more positive and ‘healthy’ populism could emerge as an effective counter trend.

Felix Keser is a first year MPA student at LSE, originally from France. He received an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Developmental Economics from McGill University. Prior to LSE, Felix spent worked in Brussels as a public affairs consultant for a lobbying boutique and in New York, where he worked for the Clinton Global Initiative. 

Théo Bourgery is a first-year MPA student at LSE, originally from France. He received an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Economics from McGill University. Prior to LSE, Théo was a political appointee to a French MP, in charge of parliamentary affairs. He also interned for the French ministries of Justice and Defence.

Joshua Eyre is a 1st year MPA candidate at LSE. Prior to LSE, Josh completed a Bachelors degree in history at University College London and worked at salt communications, where he developed campaigns around public health and responsible business.

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