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End of road for Sarkozy, but long journey ahead for Fillon says Dr David Lees

Dr David LeesThe end of the road for Sarkozy, but a long journey ahead for Fillon

The results of yesterday’s first round of the centre-right primaries in France revealed a deep-seated mistrust of former president Nicolas Sarkozy and catapulted his former lieutenant, François Fillon, into first place.

Fillon—widely viewed as a more moderate and mild-mannered candidate in contrast to Sarkozy’s reputation for arrogance and ostentatious lifestyle—nevertheless faces an uphill struggle to convince the French electorate to choose him ahead of Marine Le Pen in the 2017 elections. Having beaten off both Sarkozy and another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, Fillon is very likely to consolidate on this unexpected success by focussing on maintaining strong links with Europe, including the UK, and demonstrating how his Thatcherite vision of the economy could work for France.

Fillon will take on Juppé again in the second round of the primaries, due to take place next Sunday, 27 November, and will seek to distinguish himself from Juppé’s Gaullist political views. It is important to remember that despite Fillon appearing as something of an outsider he nevertheless served for five years as Sarkozy’s prime minister—lasting for an entire presidential term—and has a reputation as a very competent leader and a safe pair of hands.

Sarkozy’s loss is all the more surprising given that he purposefully created the Républicains from the old UMP party (union pour un mouvement populaire) in 2014, specifically for the purpose of returning to presidential power. Both he and Juppé, though, are tainted by historical scandals and yesterday’s result demonstrates further evidence that voters in democracies across the world are not willing to opt for candidates with damaging records.

Given that anyone on the French electoral register was able to vote in yesterday’s first-round vote, provided they signed a statement agreeing with the broad values of the centre-right, the result of the primary tells us more about the elections in 2017 than might first meet the eye. All is not won in the battle to beat off Le Pen in 2017, but the faith placed in Fillon yesterday, by those who chose to vote, demonstrates that the wider French public are not prepared to allow Le Pen free reign in next year’s election race.

Instead, by opting for a more sensible, less flashy presidential candidate ahead of Sarkozy, the battle lines have been drawn between an extremist, anti-immigration, anti-European campaign expected from Le Pen and a more moderate, pro-Europe, pro-Republican programme espoused by Fillon. We should not write off Juppé—a hardened political operator with a deep fan-base, especially in his stronghold of Bordeaux—but Fillon looks the most likely candidate to face off with Le Pen in the second-round of next year’s presidential race, with François Hollande’s popularity still at a record low.

Le Pen is still in with at least a 50:50 chance of the presidency, but the choice of Fillon on the centre-right is a blow to those hoping that the Brexit and Trump results can push the Front National into power.

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