Can con­ser­va­tive Fil­lon keep the French far-right at bay?

France’s elec­tion - a test for na­tion­al­ist and pop­ulist pol­i­tics

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Fran­cois Fil­lon, hav­ing clinched the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion for the right-wing Repub­li­cans party, will now join a far big­ger bat­tle for the fu­ture of France, the Euro­pean Union and main­stream pol­i­tics in the West. Af­ter Don­ald Trump’s stun­ning vic­tory in the United States, France’s elec­tion next April and May has be­come a test for how far a ris­ing tide of na­tion­al­ist and pop­ulist pol­i­tics will rise. If polls are to be be­lieved, Fil­lon’s big­gest ri­val is the far-right Na­tional Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen who sees her­self as part of a spread­ing re­volt against glob­al­iza­tion and the po­lit­i­cal elite.

Fil­lon’s back­ers in the Repub­li­cans party be­lieve his hardright po­si­tions on pro­tect­ing French cul­ture, fight­ing Is­lamic ex­trem­ism and com­bat­ing crime will help to neuter Le Pen’s ap­peal. “When you en­ter some­one else’s house you do not take over,” Fil­lon said in a mes­sage to im­mi­grants last week in a sign that he is not scared to adopt the na­tion­al­ist lan­guage of his op­po­nents.

His con­ser­va­tive so­cial views and ap­peal to ru­ral vot­ers as a de­vout Catholic from pro­vin­cial France might also shield him from charges of be­ing an out-of-touch metropoli­tan lib­eral. “It ap­pears your im­mi­nent vic­tory is wor­ry­ing Marine Le Pen,” Bruno Le Maire, a ri­val-turned­sup­porter in the Repub­li­cans party, boomed at Fil­lon’s fi­nal cam­paign rally in Paris last Fri­day. Le Maire, a for­mer min­is­ter de­feated by Fil­lon in the first round of the Repub­li­cans pri­mary, de­clared Le Pen was right to be scared-to cheers from the mostly white, mid­dle-class crowd.

A sym­bol of the past?

The stakes for France and Europe are high. As well as pledg­ing a crack­down on im­mi­gra­tion, Le Pen has promised to pull her coun­try out of the euro and or­ga­nize a ref­er­en­dum on France’s mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union. While Bri­tain’s planned de­par­ture from the EU club was a ma­jor blow, the with­drawal of France, a found­ing mem­ber, could de­liver the Euro­pean pro­ject a coup de grace. The FN un­der Le Pen has worked hard to try to shed the party’s his­toric racist im­age and hopes to cap­i­tal­ize on eco­nomic gloom and con­cern about Europe’s big­gest mi­grant cri­sis since World War II.

In the north­east­ern Parisian sub­urb of Raincy, a group of FN ac­tivists buoyed by Trump’s vic­tory and the Brexit vote gath­ered Sun­day morn­ing to hand out leaflets. Lo­cal coun­cilor Jor­dan Bardella re­hearsed the at­tack lines on Fil­lon which are likely to be at the core of the party’s pitch. Firstly, he ar­gued that Fil­lon’s time as prime min­is­ter from 2007-2012 and var­i­ous min­is­te­rial roles mean he is the sort of dis­cred­ited es­tab­lish­ment face that an­gry vot­ers are keen to re­ject. “He sym­bol­izes the past and I think French peo­ple want to turn the page,” the 21-year-old ris­ing fig­ure in the party said in front of a fruit and veg­etable mar­ket.

Sec­ondly, his pro­gram “is un­prece­dented in its vi­o­lence. It’s a real at­tempt to smash the so­cial sys­tem,” Bardella added. Fil­lon has vowed to cut 500,000 pub­lic sec­tor jobs, scrap the 35-hour work­ing week, and in­tro­duce so­cial se­cu­rity and health­care cuts de­signed to re­duce France’s chronic over-spend­ing. The 62-year-old, who grew up in a chateau near the town of Le Mans, has also ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for ex-Bri­tish leader Mar­garet Thatcher, an ad­vo­cate of glob­al­i­sa­tion, dereg­u­la­tion and free mar­kets. “To­day the world is go­ing to­tally in the op­po­site di­rec­tion,” FN vice pres­i­dent Flo­rian Philip­pot said last Thurs­day. “For me, Fil­lon is Thatcher but 30 years too late.”

Un­pre­dictable race

Two new polls pub­lished on Sun­day evening fore­cast that the Repub­li­cans party can­di­date will face-and beat-Le Pen in a sec­on­dround run-off vote in May. This would be a re-run of the 2002 elec­tion when Le Pen’s fa­ther Jean-Marie made it into the sec­ond round against the rightwing can­di­date Jac­ques Chirac. Vot­ers on the cen­tre-right and left united in a so­called “Repub­li­can front” to keep Le Pen out. This pat­tern was re­peated in re­gional elec­tions in France last De­cem­ber when cen­trist vot­ers came to­gether to pre­vent the FN win­ning a sin­gle coun­cil de­spite a strong show­ing in the first round. Fil­lon’s de­feated ri­val Alain Juppe had ar­gued that his pro­gram of more grad­ual re­form and less tra­di­tional views on abor­tion or gay rights would make him more palat­able to left­ist vot­ers.

Jean-Yves Camus, an au­thor and ex­pert on the far-right in Europe, says that the elec­tion re­mains highly un­cer­tain, with the So­cial­ist party yet to nom­i­nate its can­di­date and the role of in­de­pen­dents still un­clear. He says the at­tack on Fil­lon’s eco­nomic pro­gram will be the FN’s most ef­fec­tive line, par­tic­u­larly among the sort of work­ing class vot­ers who helped pro­pel Trump to the White House. “At the end of the day, I still think the ‘Repub­li­can front’ will work,” he said. “I don’t see French peo­ple mak­ing Marine Le Pen pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic.” —AFP

PARIS: Win­ner of the right-wing pri­maries ahead of France’s 2017 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, Fran­cois Fil­lon (right) shakes hands with mayor of Bordeaux and de­feated can­di­date Alain Juppe af­ter the an­nounce­ment of the re­sults of the sec­ond round of the cen­tre-right pri­maries ahead of France’s 2017 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. —AFP

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