François Fillon crushed Alain Juppé on Sunday night in the second round of voting for the presidential nomination for France's main conservative party. Having knocked Nicolas Sarkozy out of the race last weekend, the 62-year-old Fillon won 66.5 percent of the vote in yesterday's run-off against the more moderate Juppé.
It's a devastating blow for Juppé who, until a fortnight ago, was the clear favourite to represent the Républicains party in the spring election. There may have been a touch of complacency in Juppé's campaigning, such was the feedback from the polls, which suggested he had an unassailable lead throughout the early autumn. What did for him ultimately, though, was Fillon's tougher and more conservative approach.
For too long over the summer Juppé prattled on about his idea of creating a 'happy identity' for France, seemingly oblivious to the reality of what life is like today for all but the gilded elite. In the end, the centre-right decided that the 71-year-old mayor of Bordeaux was too old and too soft.
Fillon, who has spent the past three years touring France to better understand the concerns of its people, has tapped into the anxiety felt about what he describes as Islamic totalitarianism and the ailing economy. He's also identified the unease that many social conservatives feel - and which he shares - about same-sex marriage and adoption laws. 'My approach has been understood,' he told his supporters at his campaign headquarters on Sunday night. 'France can't bear its decline. It wants truth and it wants action.'
The action he is promising will espouse a free-market programme to end France's statist tradition that has seen the country held to ransom for decades by powerful trade unions. But Fillon has already come under attack from Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT, who earlier this year organised the strike action that brought chaos and violence to numerous French cities in response to attempts by the Socialist government to make employment laws a little more flexible. In a radio interview on Sunday Martinez declared that 'the French are against the strong elements of [Fillon's] programme', threatening that 'mobilisation will be on the agenda' if he is elected president in May. Asked if he would consider a Fillon presidency legitimate, Martinez replied: 'Of course it would be legitimate, as long as promises are kept… as long as there are no new laws that are proposed.'
To further his claims that the people are against what Fillon has described as his economic 'shock therapy', Martinez pointed to a poll published in Liberation in which 64 per cent of respondents said they were against the raising of the retirement age from 62 to 65. The same newspaper earlier in the week ran a front page on which they superimposed Margaret Thatcher's hair on Fillon's face; hatred of Maggie runs nearly as deep among the French left as it does the British.
All of which will give Marine Le Pen an opportunity to reposition herself in the coming months as the anti-Establishment candidate and the champion of the poor, downtrodden and left behind, à la Donald Trump during the American election. 'Wild globalisation has found its candidate,' declared Florian Philippot, the National Front deputy leader on Sunday night, while Le Pen broke off campaigning on the island of Reunion, one of France's overseas departments, to mock Fillon as the 'spokesman for the very worst European Union ideology,' adding: 'Never has any candidate gone so far in submitting to the ultra-liberal demands of the European Union.'
So while Islam and the economy will continue to be central themes during the coming months of campaigning, France's relationship with the EU is likely to feature prominently with Le Pen's promise to hold a 'Frexit' referendum if elected. Fillon can expect to be attacked regularly by the National Front as posh, privileged and in thrall to the Brussels bureaucrats. Sound familiar? Fillon would be wise to avoid labelling Le Pen's sympathisers 'swivel-eyed loons'.