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Fillon lead in conservative primaries undercuts Marine Le Pen

Christophe Archambault, AFP | French conservative presidential candidate François Fillon

François Fillon’s shock lead in Sunday’s primary to choose a conservative candidate in next year’s French presidential elections has thrown the far-right National Front (FN) completely off balance.


FN leader Marine Le Pen is widely expected to face off against the winner of the right-wing primary in next year’s presidential election given the weakness of the ruling Socialists.

She had been preparing for one of two expected outcomes: a battle against abrasive and sometimes populist former president Nicolas Sarkozy, or mild-mannered former prime minister Alain Juppé, whose central message is a “happy reconciliation” of multicultural France.

Consistently unreliable polls

But Fillon’s 44 percent lead over Juppé’s 27 percent in the primary’s first round has confounded the pollsters and political commentators, and appears to have buried (for the moment) Sarkozy’s political ambitions.

Only a month before, Fillon had around 11 percent of support from likely voters, well behind both Juppé and Sarkozy. The day of the vote, polls put him neck-and-neck with Sarkozy, with Juppé a long way ahead.

The latest polls give Fillon, who has been described as “Margaret Thatcher’s biggest fan” for his support of a small state and free markets, an eight-point lead over Juppé in this coming Sunday’s second round.

Le Pen (who hailed US president-elect Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a “sign of hope”) and her party are hoping against hope that the pollsters have got it wrong, again. “He’s going to be a very hard man to corner,” an unnamed member of her “inner circle” told weekly magazine L’Express on Tuesday.

Juppé the FN’s ‘ideal candidate’

Sarkozy would have been a relatively straightforward opponent. The former president, while popular with active supporters of his conservative Les Républicains party, is particularly loathed by left-wing French voters. According to some estimates, 15 percent of people who voted in Sunday’s primary were left-wingers desperate to knock him out of the race.

The FN, however, view Juppé as “easy to caricature”, considering him to be far too soft on key issues for the far right such as multiculturalism, cultural identity and family values.

“Alain Juppé is our ideal candidate,” the unnamed FN figure told L’Express. “His so-called ‘happy and harmonious society’, by which he means multiculturalism, makes the choice quite straightforward for potential FN voters.”

“François Fillon, while being fundamentally the same kind of conservative [as Juppé], says things in a very different way,” the source added.

Catholic votes

Robert Ménard, mayor of strongly FN Béziers in southern France (an independent who is closely allied to the far-right party), told L’Express in the same article that “if Fillon gets the nomination, it is not going to be easy for Marine le Pen”.

“She can’t win if she doesn’t have the support of social conservatives, notably the Catholic community,” he said.

Fillon certainly appeals to this important sector of the electorate. Born in a western region of France where Catholic roots remain strong, Fillon is seen as a strong supporter of Christian family values.

He voted against same-sex marriage when it was introduced by the Socialist President François Hollande, and he has campaigned against medically assisted fertility programmes for single women and lesbian couples. Both are stock-in-trade issues for the FN.

‘Dynamic Fillon’

Catholic voters will also be warmed by Fillon’s opposition to what he calls the ‘aggressive secularism’ of the French state, a position that may also be attractive to France’s large Muslim minority.

In particular, Fillon has baulked at the idea of banning Halal or Kosher food in school canteens, a far cry from Sarkozy’s overtly populist: “If there is pork on the menu, these kids should take a double helping of French fries instead.”

In foreign policy, Fillon has been consistently supportive of a diplomatic rapprochement with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, with whom Le Pen has been cultivating ties, and has signaled a pragmatic willingness to work with FN hero-of-the-hour Donald Trump.

“He’s got pretty much many of the same policies as us,” a senior FN member (again, unnamed) lamented to left-leaning French daily Le Monde, fearful that a “dynamic Fillon” could scupper the FN’s hopes of finally making it to the Elysée Palace next summer.

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