Republicans opt for Fillon

With just a handful of polling places outstanding, results from the French Republican primary are basically unchanged from Monday morning. François Fillon is the runaway winner with 44.1%, against Alain Juppé on 28.5% and Nicolas Sarkozy 20.6%. The second round, between Fillon and Juppé, will be held this Sunday.

Turnout was just over four and a quarter million, or around 8% of the voting-age population. That’s a good deal higher than expected, and compares favorably with the 2.65 million who turned out for the Socialist primary in 2011.

Fillon is now an unbackable favorite to win the runoff, and a very strong favorite to be the next French president. One opinion poll puts him ahead of Juppé by a surprisingly narrow margin of 56% to 44%; perhaps more important is the finding that 67% of Sarkozy’s voters would support Fillon against only 2% for Juppé.

I had some thoughts about the significance of the result in Monday’s Crikey. For those on the wrong side of the paywall, here’s my conclusion:

So France’s centre-right voters, faced with an unprecedented challenge, have opted to maximise party unity and firmly rejected the option of conceding policy ground to the far right in advance.

Not only will that make for a sharper choice next year, it will also improve Fillon’s chances of rallying the democratic forces behind him.

A stark choice, however, also poses risks. [The National Front’s Marine] Le Pen could hardly have a better foil than Fillon for her message of protectionism and anti-globalisation. It will be a test of the Trumpian thesis that economic discontent is driving a shift to the right; if French voters want to retreat to the past, they will have a clear opportunity to say so.

Most of the media coverage this week has been a bit less positive than I was, stressing Fillon’s conservatism compared to Juppé. It’s certainly true that he’ll be tougher on “identity” issues than Juppé as well as more inclined to roll back things like adoption couples for same-sex couples. But talking about “conservative” as a general category, particularly in the context of a threat from the extreme right, requires a good deal of caution.

For example, Philippe Marliere, from University College, London, says (as quoted by the BBC) “French conservatives have shifted to the right, they want someone who is more neoliberal and tougher on identity politics.” But from the point of view of the National Front and its sympathisers in Trump-land, those two things are pulling in opposite directions. It’s harder than ever to think of moves to free up the sclerotic French economy – a goal shared by François Hollande and his ministers, and once upon a time by Sarkozy himself – as distinctively “right-wing”.

The word that keeps cropping up in explanations of the surge of support for Fillon is “serious”. Unlike the mercurial Sarkozy, he was seen as someone who was thoughtful and policy-driven: the very antithesis of a demagogue. It looks as if Juppé, by defining himself so exclusively as the anti-Sarkozy, ended up by just turning off voters who were sick of hearing about personalities.

Juppé’s tactic for the runoff has been to stress Fillon’s social conservatism, asking him yesterday to “clarify” his position on abortion. Fillon was outraged at the idea, pointing out that he was perfectly capable of distinguishing between his personal views and public policy, insisting that he did not support going back on reproductive rights, and asking rhetorically “I’ve been in parliament for 30 years: has there been a single time when I’ve taken a position against abortion? A single time?”

As I argued last week, the most divisive questions within the centre-right are about tactics rather than policy: how far to concede ground to the forces to its right, particularly the National Front. That was the big issue in the deadlocked 2012 contest for the party presidency, when Fillon argued for a more mainstream strategy while his opponent, Jean-François Copé, proposed lifting the “taboo” on co-operation with the far right. Copé’s ground has since been taken up by Sarkozy; Copé himself finished dead last of the seven candidates on Sunday, with 0.3% of the vote.

So while prospective Le Pen voters will find some points of agreement with Fillon – among other things, he is more pro-Russian than most of his party – they will be under no illusions that he is one of them. Conversely, the centre-left’s voters will have many serious differences with him, but when talking (as we now must) about the very future of western civilisation, there’s little doubt that most of them will end up in his camp.

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