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EPA/Ian Langsdon

French election 2017: everything you need to know about François Fillon

The arrival of François Fillon as the right-wing Republican candidate in France’s 2017 election (let’s not pretend it was between centre and right – there were no centre candidates for the nomination), may have come as a surprise to some, but his campaign has been a long time coming.

He has been greeted as Mr Nobody but he has had a long career in politics – and a long history with his rivals for the Republican nomination.

Fillon was born in 1954 in Le Mans, in the Sarthe department of France, the gateway to “le grand ouest”. His often underlined provincial conservatism is a reflection of the region’s solid values and relatively strong rates of church-going.

He first entered politics in the mid-1970s. As many do in France, he began as a parliamentary assistant to his local MP, the Gaullist Joël Le Theule. Le Theule had a promising ministerial career ahead of him when he died suddenly in December 1980. The following June, in the general election that followed the victory of François Mitterrand and while the rest of the country was submerged under a socialist tidal wave, Fillon was elected to his old mentor’s seat. He was the youngest member of that parliament.

He had joined the RPR, the Gaullist party relaunched by Jacques Chirac in 1976, but was never close to Chirac. Indeed, after the latter’s failure to defeat Mitterrand in the 1988 presidential election, Fillon was among a loose group of Young Turks known as the Rénovateurs, determined to oust the twice-beaten Chirac as party leader, though without success.

Despite this tension, Fillon was clearly marked out as a ministerial material. When the RPR party’s Edouard Balladur was appointed prime minister in 1993 following a right-wing general election landslide, he took on the higher education portfolio.

But Chirac, not Balladur, was elected president two years later. While many of Balladur’s most prominent supporters (including Nicolas Sarkozy) were shown the door by new prime minister Alain Juppé, Fillon was spared.

By 2002, Fillon was being mentioned as an outsider for prime minister, following Chirac’s re-election, for what was by then the UMP. He didn’t get the job in the end, but Chirac did give him a ministerial role, with the crucial social affairs portfolio – a post he held until 2004, when he was reshuffled to education.

These years in government had a fundamental impact on Fillon. He was charged with undertaking a wholesale reform of the French pensions system and of secondary education – the latter not quite coming to fruition. It was during this period that he adopted a more clearly socially conservative/neo-liberal approach.

The Sarkozy years

At the same time, Fillon had begun to move closer to the increasingly restless Sarkozy. When Juppé was banned from holding elected office in 2004, the post of party president became vacant. Despite Chirac’s opposition, Sarkozy, who had never made his presidential aspirations a secret, leapt at the opportunity and Fillon supported him. In September of the same year, the two men collaborated successfully in supporting sarkozyste candidates against Chirac candidates in elections to the senate.

Fillon’s disaffection with Chirac was complete when he was left out of the new government led by Dominique de Villepin, in the wake of the “no” vote over the European constitution in 2005. The Sarkozy-Fillon axis was firmly cemented.

And yet, the relationship between the two men during Sarkozy’s presidency was not an easy one. Fillon was often exasperated by the head of state’s interventions in the day-to-day business of government (known as “hyperpresidentialism”) and by that Sarkozy’s focus on style over substance. Sarkozy’s insistence, in his first three years in office, in having ministers from the left also grated with Fillon. Openness was one thing, but politics is politics.

Fillon and Sarkozy in their Elysée days. EPA

Had he been able to afford the luxury, Sarkozy would probably have replaced Fillon in 2010, but the alternatives were unreliable and, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the prime minister was turning out to be more popular than the president in public opinion polls. Being prime minister was once described as “the worst job in France”, because when things went well the president took the glory, while if they went badly, the PM carried the can. Suddenly the roles had been reversed.

Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012 and his promise to quit politics for ever opened the door for Fillon to take over the UMP. But his way was blocked by Jean-François Copé, the general secretary of the party, in a contest that turned out to have nothing to do with policies and everything to do with personalities. The baron of the old guard (Fillon) was pitted against the energetic, rough-diamond representative of the party grassroots.

The result of the election will never really be known, because ballot papers went missing and the whole process descended into farce and bitter recriminations between the two camps. In the end, neither was appointed party president. Instead, the UMP limped on until the apparently irresistible return of Sarkozy, who in due course rebranded the UMP as Les Républicains.

The ultimate payback

The debacle surrounding the 2012 leadership contest left Fillon and others with a deep sense that someone (Sarkozy) had been moving behind the scenes to block him. But it also filled Fillon with a deep resolve. Speaking at a rally of his supporters at the Palais de la Mutualité at the end of February 2013, he promised them that he would do everything to ensure that he was the right’s candidate at the 2017 presidential election.

To that end, Fillon embarked upon a painstaking process of studying reforms in other countries and going out and meeting party activists in the provinces – all the things that Sarkozy, despite taking back the leadership of the party did not do. Of all the seven candidates in the primary, Fillon racked up the largest number of local small-scale meetings. He spent the time talking to right-wing voters about their concerns rather than focusing, as Sarkozy did, on big rallies in areas where the Front National has done well.

Fillon’s strategy and tactics proved fruitful. Now Fillon has won over his own party, he needs to convince the rest of the electorate.

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