Victory for hardline Fillon is not all bad news for Le Pen

After winning Sunday's rightwing primary runoff vote François Fillon's next challenge will be to take on Marine Le Pen. His hardline views on identity and Islam may help him, but his economic plan "to tear the house down" may not.

Victory for hardline Fillon is not all bad news for Le Pen
Photo: AFP

Most opinion polls say the far-right Marine Le Pen will almost certainly make the crucial second round runoff vote in next year’s French presidential election.

And opinion polls, granted they are not that reliable these days, also suggest that given the lack of an outstanding, unifying candidate on the French left, Le Pen will probably face François Fillon after he beat Alain Juppé in the second round of the rightwing primary on Sunday.

In the post-Trump, post-Brexit world, experts say a Le Pen victory in next year's presidential election is no longer a far-fetched idea.

The question everyone is asking is how will Le Pen do against François Fillon, a surprise winner in the primary given that up until the first round, most polls suggested Alain Juppé or Nicolas Sarkozy would come out on top.

Le Pen’s team have openly admitted that they had not even planned for the scenario of facing Fillon, but they will have to now.

'Fillon is more difficult, we wanted Juppé'

Judging from the noises coming out of the National Front this week it appears they would have rather faced Juppé next May.

“Fillon is the most difficult scenario for Marine. Juppé, who is easy to caricature, would be better,” one National Front official told Le Monde newspaper before Sunday's decisive vote.

Many analysts believe next year's election campaign will revolve around the issues of French identity and security where Le Pen may struggle to differentiate herself from a hardline Fillon.

“No, France is not a multi-cultural country. France has a history, a language and a culture which have naturally been enriched from outside, but it remains the foundation of our identity,” Fillon said on Thursday.

“When we go to somebody's house, we don't try to take power,” said Fillon adding that immigrants must respect France's cultural heritage, in words that could have been said by Le Pen herself.

Just like Le Pen, Fillon promotes a hardline on political or totalitarian Islam in France. On the same theme he has said he is in favour of an outright ban on the “burkini”, the swimwear which caused such an uproar in the summer.

And on the hot-button issue of security, Fillon’s desire to strip jihadists of their French nationality has long been the preferred policy of Le Pen’s party.

Fillon is also socially conservative, reflecting his life as a father of five children and practising Catholic who has been married to his Welsh wife Penelope for more than 30 years. They live in a 12th century manor house near Le Mans.

He voted against gay marriage when it was introduced by Socialist President Francois Hollande and has said he wants to amend the 2013 law.

The former anti-gay marriage movement Manif pour Tous, heavily linked with the Catholic church, which was backed by rightwing groups, is supporting Fillon in his bid for the presidency.

The self-declared “Gaullist” — a form of nationalism that proposes an independent and strong France — has been in politics for around 40 years and like Le Pen also favours maintaining close ties with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

But things are rarely simple in French politics and there are others who argue Fillon's radical economic reform plan could actually boost Le Pen's chances of success.

He has promised “to tear the house down and rebuild it.”

Fillon’s economic plan for France includes making savings of €110 billion over five years. That means raising the retirement age to 65, cutting 500,000 civil servant positions, scrapping the 35 hour week and making €40 billion of tax cuts for companies. He also wants to reduce the power of the unions and scrap most of France's labour laws.

Le Pen will be buoyed by the fact Fillon's planned free-market liberal economic reforms are the kind have been credited for the popularity of Donald Trump among disaffected and disadvantaged American working class voters as well as the anti-EU feeling in the UK that drove many poor working class voters to buy into Brexit.

The populist will try to persuade French voters that Fillon will simply lead France, where globalization has also created losers and lost communities, down the same path as Britain and US and it will end in tears.

After Fillon's victory on Sunday Le Pen wasted no time to attack him arguing: “Never has any candidate gone so far in submitting to the ultra-liberal demands of the European Union.”

She argued his conservative positions on society were just a smokescreen.

Her party deputy Florian Philippot also attacked Fillon's plan.

“Wild globalisation has found its candidate,” he said.

Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher with the think-tank IRIS and an expert on the far right in France, points out that Fillon’s ultra-liberal Thatcherite policies will present Le Pen, who has positioned herself as the champion of anti-globalization and anti-free trade, with plenty of ammunition for her head-to-head battle.

'Those on the left would find it difficult to vote for Fillon'

In France traditional left-wing voters, who have seen their candidates defeated, are normally prepared to vote tactically in second-round runoff votes in order to keep the National Front from power, but given his ultra-liberal policies the idea of backing Fillon may prove unpalatable to many of them. 

“Those on the left would find it hard to vote for Fillon,” Camus tells The Local. 

“France is just not used to such harsh economic policies,” Camus tells The Local. “What Margaret Thatcher did in the UK is just not acceptable in this country.

“If Fillon wins on Sunday Le Pen will be able to argue that he wants to inflict the same economic policies on France as Margaret Thatcher did in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US and how it’s not acceptable.

“She will say it’s an attack on the working classes and the lower middle classes.”

A member of Le Pen’s campaign team told L’Express this week: “Can you really imagine the workers going out to vote for Fillon en masse?”

Against Fillon, Le Pen will also be able to portray herself, just as Trump did against Clinton so effectively, as the alternative anti-establishment figure against a career politician.

The fact Fillon has been around the block and was prime minister for five years under the unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy will allow her to depict him as “same old, same old”.

Fillon could help Le Pen into power in 2022

Nevertheless, despite the unquestionable rise of Marine Le Pen, most analysts and pollsters still believe Fillon would beat her handsomely in the second round runoff vote.

But that may only help her gain power down the line.

“If François Fillon is elected there will be a backlash,” says Camus. “The question would be can the traditional left capitalise on it and attract the disgruntled voters?

“Can the left rebuild and present itself as an alternative or will the anti-free market vote go to the National Front?

“Le Pen is not old. She’s not going anywhere. In 2022 she will still be there.”

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Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”