François Fillon’s victory in the first round of the Les Républicains’ primary on Sunday has made him favourite to be the centre-right’s candidate in next year’s French presidential election.
Mr Fillon (62) faces a run-off vote next Sunday against another conservative stalwart, Alain Juppé (71), to decide which of them will fly the conservative flag in the election next April.
Opinion polls indicate the winner next weekend will face a showdown with the extreme right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, in a second round poll next May, to decide who will succeed the unpopular François Hollande as president of France.
Mr Fillon’s win on Sunday, with more than 44 per cent of the vote in a seven-way contest, has been interpreted widely as the return of the “classic, bourgeois right”, in the words of Gérard Darmanin, the co-ordinator of Nicolas Sarkozy’s failed campaign.
Mr Sarkozy, the former president who had hoped to launch a political comeback, was beaten into third place in Sunday’s primary.
The more than 1.7 million French people who voted for Mr Fillon rejected the ideologies of both Mr Sarkozy, which had borrowed heavily from the Front National, and Mr Juppé, who has adopted a more conciliatory attitude towards Islam than his opponents and wants heightened co-operation with small centrist parties.
Until the last week of the campaign, Mr Fillon – like Mr Juppé, a former prime minister – had consistently placed fourth in opinion polls. He kept his promise to “make the polls lie”, in part by instilling the idea that he had worked hardest and longest to elaborate his programme. “For months and months, I have dug my furrow, calmly, seriously, with a precise and powerful plan,” he said in his victory speech on Sunday night.
Having secured just 28.6 per cent of the vote, Mr Juppé, is at a severe disadvantage for the runoff. “The first round was a surprise,” he admitted, promising to “continue the fight . . . Next Sunday, if you want it like I do, there will be another surprise.”
Mr Fillon’s past relations with Mr Sarkozy have been execrable. He was ill-treated by Mr Sarkozy as his prime minister, and allegedly urged the Hollande administration to speed up investigations into Mr Sarkozy’s financial mis-doings.
But on Sunday night, Mr Fillon said he had “a special thought for Nicolas Sarkozy”, minutes after Mr Sarkozy called on supporters to vote for Mr Fillon in the run-off. “Defeat must humiliate no one, because we will need everybody,” Mr Fillon said.
Mr Fillon shares the affection of Ms Le Pen for Vladimir Putin’s
, and is close to the religious right. The “Sens commun” movement that grew out of the “Manif pour tous” against same-sex marriage supports Mr Fillon.
Front National officials on Monday denied that Mr Fillon would be a more difficult adversary for Ms Le Pen than Mr Juppé or Mr Sarkozy. Jean-Lin Lacapelle, national secretary of Front National federations, said Mr Fillon was “an accomplice and is co-responsible for Sarkozy’s disastrous term”.
Yet Mr Fillon was able to dissociate himself from Mr Sarkozy's record, in part because he warned that the French state was "bankrupt" while serving under Mr Sarkozy. If prime minister Manuel Valls becomes the Socialist Party candidate for the presidency, he too will have to distance himself from the record of the unpopular president he has served under.
If Mr Fillon is confirmed as the conservative presidential candidate next Sunday, the Front National and other parties are most likely to attack his economic policies. "Fillon's programme means 500,000 fewer civil servants, particularly in the countryside, and an increase in VAT," said Florian Philippot, vice-president of the Front National. "Fillon wants to destroy public service, and the state."