And once more the polls have got it wrong. For months French pollsters confidently predicted that the first round of voting to find the centre-right candidate to represent Les Républicains in next year’s presidential election was a straight shootout between Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé. The other five contenders? There to make up the numbers in the three televised debates.
One or two whispers began to emerge a few weeks ago that François Fillon was gaining ground but few believed that the man who served as Sarkozy’s Prime Minister nearly a decade ago would romp to victory with 44.1 per cent of the vote. Juppé was a distant second, with a 28.2 per cent share, and way back in third was Sarkozy on 21 per cent. ‘I have no bitterness, I have no sadness, and I wish the best for my country,’ Sarkozy said, as his political comeback turned into bitter humiliation.
It was the first time that Les Républicains (formally the UMP) have held a presidential primary and according to the French press the vote was infiltrated by thousands of left-wing supporters, who paid the two euros fee and signed the Républicains’ charter in order to vote against Sarkozy
That’s how much the former President is hated by many on the left, who regard him as corrupt, vulgar and divisive. In recent months he has created more enemies as he restyled himself as the political outsider and tried to woo voters from the National Front, some of whose supporters may also have signed up to vote against Sarkozy to ensure Le Pen is the only candidate promising to be merciless on the matter of law and order.
There was undisguised gloating from the National Front as the shock result was announced, a spokesman declaring: ‘It’s a right that is lost, bewildered, who wants neither Sarkozy nor Juppé, but gives itself a man so courageous he was incapable of standing up to Sarkozy during five years.’
That sarcastic dig at Fillon will be the first of many aimed his way if he beats Juppé next week in the second round to become the Républicains’ candidate. The 62-year-old, whose first ministerial appointment was in 1993, served as Sarkozy’s PM between 2007 and 2012, and it won’t be hard for Marine Le Pen to brand him as a fully paid-up member of the out-of-touch political elite who has never lived in the real world. If Fillon wins, expect her to make much of the fact he lives in the sumptuous Château de Beaucé.
In this most extraordinary of political years it’s unwise to draw too many conclusions from Sarkozy’s humiliation, although the National Front believes Sarkozy’s demise will serve them well. ‘What’s interesting for us is that we’re going to have a lot of Sarkozy’s orphans,’ said the party’s general secretary, Nicolas Bay.
Fillon’s supporters will claim that his 44 per cent share of the vote is proof that the French right has warmed to his campaign pledge to apply some shock therapy to the ailing economy. I received a leaflet through the letterbox of my Parisian flat last week (the only one I received from the seven candidates) in which Fillon was lauded for his ‘experience, integrity and honesty’. The leaflet also promised that a Fillon presidency will permit ‘freedom for individuals and businesses in order to create an environment and a movement favourable to encouraging initiatives and jobs.’
Fillon, whose wife is Welsh, expressed his respect for Margaret Thatcher in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in June 2014 when he lamented the fact that ‘France has never had a Thatcherian revolution’. Those words will send a chill through French socialists, which is why Marine Le Pen will hope Fillon beats Juppé in the second round next week. The latter has a better approval rating among left-wing voters than Fillon, what with his talk about ending the 35-hour working week and culling 500,000 jobs from the country’s bloated public-sector.
While only a fool would place too much faith in a poll these days, a survey in Le Figaro recently reported that, on the assumption Le Pen faced Juppé in the second round of the presidential election, she would win 36 per cent of the vote to his 64. If it was Fillon against Le Pen, her share of the vote would rise to 43 per cent.
Le Pen will believe that she can close that gap between now and April if indeed it is Fillon elected as the Républicains’ candidate. It would be unwise though to underestimate the debonair Fillon. He’s also shifted to the right in recent months, albeit less brazenly than Sarkozy. In September he published a book, ‘How to Defeat Islamic Totalitarianism’, and he recently gave an interview to a French newspaper in which he said: ‘France is at war and the political class have unfortunately not really grasped the gravity of the danger posed by the rise of Islamic totalitarianism.’ Fillon has also mocked Le Pen’s attempt to make political capital from Donald Trump’s recent victory, saying that he is ‘one of the symbols of American capitalism that the National Front abhors’.
But before Fillon can think about taking on Le Pen, he has six days to focus on defeating Juppé in Sunday’s second round. Given the margin of his victory last night it should be a formality, but in these unpredictable times who dares take anything for granted?