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François Fillon: The man who took control of the French right

AFP | François Fillon

Former premier François Fillon won the conservative primary on Sunday to become Les Républicains’ candidate for the 2017 presidential election. A social conservative and a proponent of the free market, he is known as “France’s Margaret Thatcher”.


Fillon was born on March 4, 1954, in Le Mans in northwestern France to a notary father and a historian mother of Basque descent. He began his public career in 1981, when at the age of 27 he became the youngest member of parliament and then mayor of Sablé-sur-Sarthe in 1983.

He later served nationally as minister of higher education (1993-1995), minister of technology (1995) and telecommunications minister (1995-1997). In his role as labour minister between 2002 and 2004 Fillon launched several contentious reforms, including making the 35-hour workweek more flexible and raising the retirement age – two proposals that he is seeking to revisit as president.

After returning to the post of higher education minister in 2004, he became known for a controversial reform of the education system (the “Fillon Law”) that introduced a core curriculum for certain subjects – including French, mathematics, foreign languages, humanities, science and communications – but which excluded the arts.

In 2007, then president Nicolas Sarkozy asked Fillon to serve as his prime minister, a post he occupied until Sarkozy lost to Hollande in 2012.

A social conservative and a Catholic, Fillon was once the candidate of choice for France’s “Manif Pour Tous” movement opposing gay marriage because he shared many of their views. Although he has said he will not seek to overturn the 2012 law legalising same-sex marriage, he wants to restrict gay couples from adopting children unless the child maintains some links with the birth family (known in France as l’adoption simple).

But Fillon, 62, is not your typical conservative. A lifelong racing enthusiast as befits a man who grew up in Le Mans – home of the 24-hour race of the same name – Fillon once appeared on the “Top Gear” TV programme.

And while he is personally opposed to abortion, he rejects any suggestion that he might seek to overturn the 1975 law legalising the procedure.

Fillon lives in a 12th-century castle near his hometown with his Welsh-born wife, Penelope Clarke, and their five children.


Embracing Thatcher

Much like Margaret Thatcher in her heyday, Fillon wants to introduce more free-market economic policies and challenge France’s powerful trade unions.

Fillon has promised a “radical shock” for the French economy, including tax cuts and a €100 billion reduction in public spending over five years. He has vowed to eliminate 500,000 public servant jobs and replace their 35-hour workweek with a 39-hour week, while allowing private companies to increase the number of work hours to 48 (the legal limit for EU countries).

He had also vowed to raise the national retirement age from 62 to 65 years and lower the cap on unemployment benefits.

“Some candidates want to be unkind by calling me Thatcherite, but it pleases me,” Fillon has said, adding: “At least she left her mark as someone who straightened out her country.”

His economic platform calls for a €15 billion tax cut for households and scrapping the so-called wealth tax levied on France's richest citizens. To compensate, he proposes raising the country’s 20 percent value-added tax (VAT) rate by 2 percentage points.

Fillon also wants to make France more attractive to business by reforming its notoriously rigid labour laws and reducing corporate taxes by some €40 billion.

But his liberal reform proposals quickly come under fire in a country accustomed to a strong social safety net and broad protections for the labour market.

In an interview with Europe 1 last week, Fillon angrily denied that unemployment had doubled during Thatcher’s reign. According to Britain’s Office for National Statistics, unemployment was at 5.3 percent when Thatcher took office in May 1979 before more than doubling to a high of 11.9 in 1984. The number of job seekers subsequently dipped to 7.5 percent by the time she finished her third term in November 1990.

When confronted with these numbers Fillon said they were “laughable”, adding that to hear such accusations made him angry. “On the contrary, Mrs. Thatcher is the one who restarted Britain’s industrial sector,” he said.

Much of Fillon’s appeal comes from his directness and his dogged pursuit of his political goals. His resolve in pushing for pension reform, first as minister of labour in 2003 and then as prime minister in 2010, is taken as proof that he will not give up even when facing down the unions.

French magazine "L'Express" noted that Fillon heralds a shift to the right while also managing to be "the anti-Trump". Where the US president-elect is bombastic, Fillon is reserved.

“That just might be Fillon's key to success,” observed Kersten Knipp in Deutsche Welle. “He is popular but not a populist. He is conservative but not reactionary.”

‘France did not choose multiculturalism’

Fillon is certainly more direct than many politicians when discussing the controversial issues of Islamist terrorism and immigration. He roundly rejects leftist notions of multiculturalism even while saying that France has been “enriched” by its foreign residents. Instead he promotes the idea of “assimilation”.

"France has a history, a language, a culture. Of course this culture and language have been enriched by the contributions of foreign populations, but they remain the foundation of our identity," he said at a debate with conservative rival Alain Juppé just days before the run-off.

“When we go to someone’s home, we don’t try to take power,” Fillon said, adding that immigrants in France should “respect our cultural heritage”.

When asked if France was already a multicultural nation, Fillon was unequivocal. "No. In any case, that is not a choice we made. We did not choose communitarianism (social division) and multiculturalism."

For some, however, Fillon’s ideas lack some much-needed nuance. He was ridiculed for an August speech in which he condemned school curricula that lead French students to be “ashamed” of the country’s colonial past, likening colonialism to a “sharing of cultures”. After all, he said, “France did not invent slavery.”

But he has also stopped short of joining calls from some on the right wing to ban halal or kosher food from being offered in French school canteens.

Fillon portrays himself as firm in his resolve to confront the threat of radical Islam head-on. In his new book released in September, “Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism,” Fillon writes that it is time to forget about “political correctness” and confront the danger directly, warning that the “bloody invasion of Islamism in our daily lives could provoke a third world war”.

“The big question today is how to vanquish this terrible threat that has targeted France and the French,” he wrote.

Rapprochement with Russia

Fillon has long been supportive of pursuing a diplomatic rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has dismissed as useless the EU sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, saying the West must work with Moscow against the Islamic State group and that Russia poses no tangible threat to the West.

"Western countries have made a virtual enemy of Russia in recent years, rejecting cooperation with Moscow even though Russia poses no threat to the West," Fillon told Europe 1 radio last week.

Moreover, he said sanctions against Russia "did not change a thing except ruin French farmers".

Fillon and Putin signed several trade deals between 2007 and 2012, when they were both prime ministers. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that the two men have a "good relationship", adding: "We follow the French campaign with great interest."

"I am only asking that we sit at the table with the Russians – without asking for the Americans' approval – and try to re-establish ties," Fillon said in his debate with Juppé on Thursday night.

"I don't want France to be the vassal of Washington or of Moscow. Neither one nor the other," he said.

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