France’s Fillon already a favourite in next elections
London - French former prime minister François Fillon, a social conservative, looks set to dominate next year’s presidential elections after securing a smooth path to the Republican Party nomination, with many expecting France to lurch to the right on immigration and multiculturalism after four years of Socialist rule.
Fillon, 62, beat former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé to secure the conservative Republican Party nomination for president. With France’s ruling Socialist Party in disarray — President François Hollande has announced he will not seek a second term — there appear to be few impediments to Fillon’s path to Élysée Palace next year. Both defeated rivals, viewed as being less conservative than Fillon, immediately pledged support for his campaign.
Fillon leads the polls, which have been a poor predictor of votes in 2016, with most political analysts saying that France’s presidential elections will end in a second-round vote between Fillon and the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen, with Fillon winning easily.
The same polls, however, had largely dismissed Fillon during the race for the nomination but he gained popularity following the recent publication of a book called Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism that helped burnish his right-wing credentials. “France is more right wing than it has ever been,” Fillon acknowledged.
“It is bad news. The election of Fillon is a sign that the right has drifted to the far right,” French human rights activist Yasser Louati said.
“His rhetoric was directly targeting Muslims, although he doesn’t say Muslims. He says ‘Islamic totalitarianists’. This rhetoric appealed to the most radical reactionary fringe of the French population and it is a discourse that does find purchase in the French political landscape and can be seen by both the right and the left,” he said.
Analysts say Fillon’s victory could potentially slow Le Pen’s rise, as both candidates promote similar policies on immigration and social issues and would compete for the same voters.
“Yes, Marine Le Pen is in trouble now. Fillon does have a similar discourse as with her but without the evil tag of the National Front on his back. So people can now vote for Fillon and not feel guilty for voting for a party that has a history of anti- Semitism and neo-Nazi sympathy,” Louati said.
With the first round of the vote scheduled for April and no consensus figure emerging among France’s left wing, hopes for a major upset look slim. “So far the two main candidates are definitely François Fillon and Marine Le Pen,” Louati said.
In his victory speech, Fillon pledged unprecedented change. “I will take up an unusual challenge for France. To tell the truth and completely change its software,” he said. Fillon’s campaign for the nomination had seen the reserved and impassive veteran politician vent about the French status quo, calling for major social and economic reform and strongly defending “French values”.
Fillon, known to be a fan of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, has promised tax and spending cuts, to slash public sector jobs and weaken France’s powerful trade unions. He has also strongly criticised France’s Socialist Party for its weak response to immigration.
“I will defend those [French] values and we will share them with everyone who, with their differences, loves France,” Fillon said during a presidential debate. He had earlier emphatically criticised multiculturalism. “No, France is not a multicultural nation. When you come to someone’s house, by courtesy, you don’t take over,” he said.
Fillon has also promised to tackle immigration, saying that he intends to reduce immigration to its “strict minimum” and has promised to defeat Islamic terrorism, which has been linked to the killing of more than 230 people in France over an 18-month period. Domestically, Fillon has promised “administrative controls” on Islam, including banning preaching in Arabic. “The bloody invasion of Islamism into our daily life could herald a third world war,” he warned in Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism.
For human rights activists, such as Louati, Fillon’s election is evidence of the homogenisation of French views towards identity politics and the idea of “French values”.
“Everybody [during the next election] will agree on identity politics,” Louati said. “That won’t go away… Even under the current Socialist government, this is clear to see in its policies and how it reacted in the wake of the attacks. So there clearly is a shift to the right in France.”