The Republican candidate represents the radicalisation of the mainstream rightby Jim Wolfreys / November 23, 2016 / Leave a comment
Georges Clemenceau, prime minister of France during the first world war, once summed up his relationship with his longstanding ally Georges Mandel: “When I fart, he’s the one who stinks.” Former prime minister François Fillon has just turned the maxim on its head. Fillon won the first round of the primary to be the presidential candidate of the centre-right Les Républicains party, eliminating his old boss Nicolas Sarkozy in the process. Fillon, once belittled by Sarkozy as his “employee,” was prime minister for the entire term of the Sarkozy presidency (2007-12). He fronted an agenda that combined neoliberal economic policies with an alarming escalation of racism, in particular Islamophobia. Yet it is Sarkozy who has taken the flak for their record in office, exiting the contest with multiple corruption scandals trailing in his wake.
The result has various implications. Sarkozy’s high octane style of hyper-presidentialism appears to have run its course, a reminder that brash populist authoritarianism can find its capacity to retain support fatally blunted by office. Promising to reward the France that “gets up early,” the Sarkozy presidency instead benefited top earners, while earnings for the poorest fell. Very few countries experienced a greater rise in income inequality than France between 2007 and 2011. Fillon proposes more of the same, a central part of his platform being the jaw-dropping promise to cut half a million public sector jobs. Other measures include extending the statutory retirement age to 65, cutting public spending by €110bn and scrapping the 35-hour week. A veteran of numerous social conflicts, Fillon is prepared for further confrontation with the trade unions.
Alain Madelin, the French politician most associated with a neoliberal outlook, has criticised such measures as a caricature of anti-social liberalism: “Robin Hood in reverse.” Madelin is a supporter of Alain Juppé, whose presence in the second round of the primary is a testament to the durability of political elites in France. Almost as soon as he had become prime minister in the mid-1990s, Juppé’s standing was hit by a wave of strikes and demonstrations that knocked his social security reforms off course. Later convicted for his part in a corrupt party financing operation and banned from public office for a short period, Juppé has managed to recast himself. Next to Sarkozy, he is a statesman, next to Fillon he is a moderate. He is likely to lose the second round poll.
Fillon offers rigour and authority, continuity with the agenda he implemented as prime minister without the kitsch volatility of his former boss. His is an unequivocal neoliberal stance wedded to traditional socially conservative Catholic values: he opposes gay marriage, adoption for same sex couples and abortion. He also wants to rehabilitate the country’s colonial past, arguing France should bear no guilt for having wanted to “share its culture” with the peoples of Africa, Asia and North America. His latest book, “Defeat Islamic Totalitarianism,” calls for an alliance with Iran and Russia against Isis. Fillon claims that France does not have a problem with religion, just with the rise of fundamentalism among Muslims. He supported the ludicrous burkini ban imposed on French beaches this summer before the Council of State declared it “a serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms.”
Fillon’s sober image belies the dynamic that underpins his success so far, one that builds on rather than repudiates Sarkozy’s legacy: the radicalisation of the mainstream right. Many of those who demonstrated against gay marriage in the self-styled “French spring” of 2013, a wave of reaction that nearly a quarter of the population still identifies with, will back Fillon. If he defeats Juppé, his presidential campaign is likely to entrench further the Islamophobia that has become an integral part of mainstream political rhetoric and policy.
The Socialists choose their candidate in January, with approval ratings for President François Hollande currently standing at 4 per cent. A Fillon candidacy will offer scope to Marine Le Pen, the daughter of a millionaire, to pose as a populist alternative to the figure her party, the Front National describes as “the man of the Lisbon treaty.” Fillon is also seeking to answer a question long posed of the French right: can it defeat opposition to sweeping neoliberal measures that will cut public spending, shrink the welfare state and reduce the weight of the public sector? That question, however, will not be resolved by this election alone.