He has done it. Although no one would have put their money on him a month ago, François Fillon, a former Prime Minister, won yesterday the primary for Les Républicains, the centre-right party in French Politics. He will be running for the presidency in the upcoming elections in May. Given the low approval ratings of the current president François Hollande and the wild fights inside the Socialist party, a Fillon-Le Pen race is now the most credible prospect for the French people.
Politically, 2016 has been characterised worldwide by unforeseen upsets, with outcomes deemed impossible by experts and pollsters becoming reality as votes were counted. The result of the centre-right primaries in France should therefore be seen in such global trend, yet without discarding the particular features of the French political environment.
The electoral system in France is characterised by two rounds. The French people vote a first time choosing among all the candidates — normally around 10 — that present themselves. Two weeks later, voters are called to cast a second ballot for one of the two candidates that performed best in the first round.
With such electoral system it is almost certain that Marine le Pen, whom according to the national polls currently sits at 30% of voters’ choices, will reach the second round, and most likely as the candidate with the most votes. Yet, because of the voting system, it will be difficult for her to win the Presidency.
This is the case because historically French people who usually vote for left-wing parties have chosen to settle for the less far right candidate at the second round. In 2002, for example, the Socialist Party did not reach the second round, leaving the electoral quest to Jacques Chirac and Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie. Due to the fear of having a far-right candidate actually becoming President, the electorate from the left and from the centre-right joined forces and massively voted for Chirac, who become president with 82.2% of the popular vote in the second round.
Historically, French people who usually vote for left-wing parties have chosen to settle for the less far-right candidate at the second round.
Similarly, during last year’s regional election, the Front National (FN) won in several regions at the first round of voting. Yet, after the second round they ended up not securing any region as both the electorate of the left and the moderate right voted for whoever was against the FN.
This unusual joining of forces comes from the fact that the Front National, especially under Jean-Marie’s leadership, has been known to have ties to neo-Nazi movements and to embrace racist and sexist ideals. Marine's aim since a couple of years ago has then been to distance herself from such image without disenfranchising the party’s electoral base. In fact, her new "movement" for next year's election does not quite focus its campaign on the Front National itself, but rather on the character and personal traits of its leader. Her new logo simply reads: "Marine Présidente" with a blue rose (blue being historically the colour of the right and the rose being the symbol of the Socialist Party).
However, after François Fillon’s win yesterday, her strategy will have to make some adjustments. Fillon might gain a few voters from her, as their programs do meet on some points. Fillon is gaining voters from conservative Catholics, by criticising the law that allows gays marriage. Moreover, he has promised to restart talks with Putin, something that is similar to Le Pen's foreign policy. Finally, Fillon has exploited identity politics in his discourse, for example by saying that immigrants need to adapt to the French culture.
Unlike Le Pen, however, Fillon is in favour of an ultra-liberal economic policy, which has granted him the nickname of “the French Thatcher”. He advocates for cuts of 500.000 public jobs and a reduction of corporate taxes. Thus if the most likely scenario happens – Fillon versus Le Pen in the second round – people will have to make a decision based on what they regard as the most important issue. Will they choose to vote for an extremist party with all the risks that such a move entails, or will they prefer to vote for an establishment candidate with a rather liberal economic agenda?
Whilst making predictions after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump's victory in the United States seems risky now more than ever, it does seem like Fillon’s nomination has seriously reduced Marine Le Pen’s chances of getting into office next year. However, we will have to wait until May to see whether history proves such prediction wrong and the right-wing momentum takes over France. People across the world have recently shown they will to distance themselves from the elites and choose a future that no one predicted. It will be up to François Fillon to prove his worth – and convince the French people that he would indeed be a better choice than Marine Le Pen. TMM