France's Iron Man?

Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images

French Presidential Front-Runner Is Actually a Conservative

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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Openly expressing admiration in France for former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is a bit like asking for ketchup with your entrecote. Or it was. Francois Fillon, an avowed Thatcherite, is the new front-runner in France's 2017 presidential election. He came from far behind to win France's Republican nomination for the presidency, taking 67 percent of votes in Sunday's run-off.

QuickTake Q&A: He's No Trump

It's amazing how different a candidate looks when power seems within reach. Fillon, a former prime minister and long-time civil servant, used to be thought of as a charmless bureaucrat who lacks, as his Welsh-born wife once put it bluntly, the "killer instinct." And yet his candidacy first killed off that of his former boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, a charismatic figure who as president himself belittled his underling. Then in Sunday's run-off, he blew past the previous front-runner, former prime minister Alain Juppe. Both have now pledged to support Fillon.

With the Socialist Party of President Francois Hollande in complete disarray (Hollande's approval ratings are only 4 percent), Fillon is now considered the favorite to be the next French president. There is a long way to go, but if current polls prove correct -- these days more than ever a big "if" -- Fillon will face the leader of the staunchly anti-immigrant, anti-Europe (think of a Gallic version of the alt-right), National Front party, Marine Le Pen, in the final round of balloting for the presidency in May.

So, it's worth asking, what is "le fillonisme"?

The left and right in France have differed more in rhetoric than in actual policy over the years, one reason voters have increasingly flocked to outsiders like Le Pen. The Jesuit-educated Fillon is a traditional French conservative in the mold of Charles de Gaulle (whose portrait hung in his bedroom as a teenager). Only he wants to (gasp) shrink the French state. To voters accustomed to epic policy climb-downs, especially in the face of union protests, he vows not to pull his punches.

Given his array of policy proposals and rhetoric, he would be comfortable in U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party cabinet, and even perhaps in Donald Trump's. With his support for Vladimir Putin and sharp criticism of the European Union, he may have less obvious common ground with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As Trump did in the U.S., Fillon looks ready to overturn a Republican Party establishment that promises change but never delivers. He tells voters he doesn't want to replace "left with right" but to launch a new kind of politics for France. (Detractors, such as the independent presidential candidate and former economy minister Emanuel Macron, counter that his record in office was less bold).

His surge poses problems for the populist Le Pen, who has sought to portray all the mainstream candidates as uninspiring and ineffectual. Her boast that the Republican primary was fought on her issues -- immigration, security and a renegotiated relationship with Europe -- is true enough, though they are also the grounds on which pretty much every election in Europe is being fought right now. The daughter of the Jean-Marie Le Pen, the xenophobic firebrand who founded the National Front, Marine has worked hard to broaden her appeal -- sidelining her father and even dropping the Le Pen name from her campaign website in a bid to detoxify the party -- while sticking to her core anti-immigrant, anti-EU message.

Fillon is comfortable on Le Pen's turf. Unlike Sarkozy, who tried to steal some of the National Front voters by trumpeting his support for a ban on the Muslim swim-covering known as a "burkini," Fillon is not in favor of banning religious symbols in public. But he is a social conservative who wrote a recent book on fighting "Islamic totalitarianism." 

Fillon is seeking to win back voters who have flocked to the National Front in protest. His plans to make access to social benefits for non-Europeans conditional on two-years of residency is a nod to the identity politics of French nationalists. A practicing Catholic who opposed the same-sex marriage law (but also a realist who pledges to preserve it), he attracted strong support from conservative Catholics in the primary and is likely to continue to appeal to that voter group. His defense of France's colonial past seems aimed at appealing to Gallic pride.

Where the National Front's rhetoric is incendiary, Fillon's largely focuses on pragmatic policy details. He proposes to reform the Schengen agreement that removed borders between member states and be tougher on non-Europeans who commit offenses in the Schengen area. He proposes tripling the budget of Frontex, the EU agency that manages cooperation between national border guards, and creating a new European border guard.

Both he and Le Pen seek to tap into voter angst about globalization, but in different ways. Le Pen wants to hold a referendum on leaving the EU; Fillon seeks to reform Europe from within. But he's no reflexive Europhile, as past French presidents have been. The EU, he says, is "at best, ineffective, useless and irrelevant and at worst as an obstacle to our development and freedom."

Intriguingly, his platform includes radically reducing the power of the European Commission. In the euro zone, he calls for monetary policy to be harnessed to a new secretariat charged with bringing about fiscal policy convergence and, eventually, pooling national debts (a proposal that is not likely to go down well across the border in Germany).

Fillon shares Trump's aversion to trade deals. Like a majority of his countrymen, he's against the proposed trade deal between the U.S. and Europe, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which has been pronounced dead anyway. He seeks stricter anti-dumping enforcement and says imported products should be made respecting the same "environmental and social standards" as French products. 

So far, so popular, but what about his economic prescriptions? There he is seeking to take on that great, undefeated opponent -- French statism.  

He has put France's powerful unions on notice, pledging to get rid of the mandatory 35-hour workweek and other labor laws, cut 500,000 civil service jobs and require civil servants to work 39 hours a week. He argues for a higher retirement age and promises to cut public spending by 100 billion euros ($106 billion) over his five-year term. Other plans include a cap on unemployment benefits, tax cuts for households and companies, and an end to the hated wealth tax, in which the state taxes the value of property, including jewelry and furniture, above a certain threshold. The tax, originally a levy on the rich, has ensnared many people of modest means whose property values have risen, and has driven talented French workers to London and elsewhere.

Whatever their rhetoric, French politicians tend to default to a center-left norm once in office. Those who declare France finally ready for change are usually proved wrong; polls suggest a strong aversion to social unrest, which is what happens when proposals to curb social benefits or union powers are made. Very little of his period as prime minister under Sarkozy suggested Fillon as France's iron man; but then, power rests with the president and he took his cues from his boss. A 2007 biography by French journalist Christine Kelly suggests the Formula 1-loving, Alpinist is a natural leader who has been biding is time. 

Perhaps his time has indeed come. It's easy to forget that France isn't just the country of long lunches, short work-weeks and rowdy union activists. It's also the home of world-beating companies, a leader in productivity and infrastructure. Could a public admirer of Thatcher -- Britain's free-market, reforming leader -- become president of the French Republic? It sounds implausible, but France is a place of contradictions. The era of interesting elections won't end with 2016.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net