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The French presidential election begins in April 2017, and if no candidate wins the first round, it will go to the second and final round in May. François Hollande looks, at this point, like the walking dead. His poll numbers are almost comically low — the opposition could triumph by running any reasonably healthy goat. His party will hold primary elections in January; they may put him out of their misery and select another candidate, or he may decide not to run.
As of now — keeping in mind that this has been a surprising year, politically — polls suggest that it will ultimately come down to a contest between the traditional conservative party, Les Républicaines (LR), and Le Pen. Polls also show that if that conservative candidate was boring Alain Juppé, the LR would win by significant margins, but I’m beginning to suspect we’ve entered an un-pollable world owing either to cell phone usage or to people’s greater savviness — or wariness — about speaking to pollsters, so who knows.
Last Sunday, LR held the first round of its first-ever open primaries. The party, as my friend Arun Kapil describes them, is “the latest iteration of the neo-Gaullist movement.” They represent the traditional French right and center-right. The decision to hold American-style primaries was made well before the party had a chance to contemplate the most recent result of our primary system, which gave us two candidates loathed by everyone. Whether they’d have been keen to switch to US-style primaries after seeing that, I don’t know. But what’s done is done, and these are now the rules in France.
The results were surprising. In a post written on the eve of the primary, Arun ran through the seven candidates in the race, explaining their positions on the issues. He didn’t seem to give Fillon much of a chance:
Fillon looked like a loser for most of the campaign, treading water and going nowhere, with no hope of catching Sarkozy and Juppé. Already four years ago, in the wake of the bloodbath between the fillonistes and copéistes for control of the UMP, I pronounced him toast and for all time. But lo and behold, his poll numbers have been surging over the past couple of weeks and with him now in striking distance, even at parity, with Sarkozy for second place. If Fillon makes it to the 2nd round, it will be a stunning coup de théâtre foreseen by no pundit or politico. And if it happens at Sarkozy’s expense, it will be such sweet revenge for Fillon, who hates Sarkozy with a passion, Fillon having been mistreated and humiliated during his five years at Matignon under Sarko’s hyper-presidency. If this comes to pass and Fillon squares off against Juppé, he will have an excellent chance of winning, and ergo be the odds-on favorite next May. Whoda thunk it?
So, guess what happened: another stunning coup de théâtre foreseen by no pundit or politico. Fillon took 44 percent of the vote, handily ending Sarkozy’s political career and relegating Juppé to a distant second.
This is very unusual for the French right, which tends to pick the most Gaullist candidate it can — the most charismatic, largest personality. Part of it, perhaps, is that everyone is just sick of Sarkozy and his vanity, and no one looked forward to seeing his face on television for another five years. And perhaps — this is pure speculation — Juppé reminded voters too much of Clinton: entitled, lacking vision, running on his long experience at a time when no one thinks that experience reflects well on the ruling class. Perhaps voters thought, “We saw what happened to Clinton; Juppé will lose to Le Pen.” Perhaps they were right.
Because I didn’t expect him to go anywhere, I paid no mind to Fillon, and can’t tell you much about him beyond what the media’s reporting. He served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012 under Sarkozy. I wasn’t living in France then, so I have no personal memories of him. He’s a 62-year-old Catholic from a village in the northwest. He’s proposed what’s being called a “radical pro-business” reform program: labor reform, increasing the retirement age, cutting 500,000 public sector jobs in five years.
This makes him sound like a rare economic liberal in an age of statism and populism: He calls himself a “Thatcherite,” and defended economic liberalism as common sense: “I’m tagged with an [economically] liberal label in the same way one would paint crosses on the doors of lepers in the middle ages. But I’m just a pragmatist.”
It’s extremely unusual for a French politician to liken himself explicitly to Thatcher. It’s particularly striking that he’s done so when so many in France — and the world — see the kind of liberalism she represented as a failure, of which Donald Trump’s election is only the most recent symptom. He’s swimming against the current with this label. I was pleased to see that “Thatcher” was trending in France yesterday. Some commentators think this is what attracted voters; others think it’s the book he just published, which I haven’t read, but which apparently says sensible things about energetically combatting Islamists without targeting law-abiding Muslims.
My reaction to all of that is, “Well, that sounds good. I thought well of Margaret Thatcher. The election of someone like that would be good for France and good for Europe.”
Except that Monsieur Fillon also seems to be a committed fan of Vladimir Putin.
Now, how he reconciles this with being a great fan of Margaret Thatcher I don’t know; as far as I’m concerned, they can’t be reconciled. But he’s called for a rapprochement with Russia without demanding any concessions, in turn. He’s campaigned feverishly against the economic sanctions placed on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine; he says they’re counterproductive and “strategically devastating for our farmers.” He looks forward to what he hopes will be a good relationship between Putin and Trump. He says he admires Putin’s “cold and effective pragmatism” in the Middle East. Cold and effective, for sure.
Le Point reports that Fillon and Putin use “tu” with each other — which is like being on a first-name basis:
Vladimir Putin can rejoice. If François Fillon enters the Élysée Palace, Putin can count on having a new friend in the circle of Western leaders. Indeed, like Donald Trump, the former French prime minister intends ardently to work with Russia. One month ago, at the very moment the world was outraged about the Russian bombardment of Aleppo, Fillon was one of the rare people to condemn François Hollande’s refusal to receive the Kremlin master who wanted to inaugurate the [new] Russian orthodox church in Paris. “Of course we should welcome him,” he snapped. “Do we want to make war on Russia?”
In other words, as Leonid Bershidsky put it for Bloomberg, without too much hyperbole, Vladimir Putin is Winning the French Election, in so far as it looks as if it will now come down to two enthusiastic Russophiles:
While it’s unclear how well Russian President Vladimir Putin will get along with Donald Trump and his team of Republican hawks, it looks as though he has already won the French presidential election. The front-runner in the primary election of the French center-right, Francois Fillon, is nearly as enthusiastic a Russophile as Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, and the center-left hardly stands a chance in next year’s presidential election. …
Among the center-right candidates, Juppe was the most anti-Russian. He has condemned the Crimea annexation and the Russian bombings of Aleppo, accusing Russia of “war crimes” in Syria. “At a certain moment, we shouldn’t hesitate to tell Putin ‘stop,'” he has said. If he ended up running against Le Pen, Putin would have a thing or two to worry about; he might even need to find a way to provide more funding for the National Front leader. With Fillon as the center-right candidate, he can relax.
Fillon’s position is longstanding; it’s not a whim. There’s always been a part of the French right that’s been hostile to American power and eager for Russia to be a counterweight. That’s where Fillon comes from. And that idea seems to be a trend, even in America.
So, I don’t know whether this is a victory for Thatcher’s ideas of for Putin’s. All I know is it can’t really be both. We’ll see.