Fillon’s triumph sets up a centre-left dilemma

As expected, François Fillon won a large majority in the second round of the centre-right presidential primary in France, beating Alain Juppé by two to one, 66.5% to 33.5%. Despite the lack of suspense, turnout was even higher than in the first round, at almost 4.4 million. According to Le Monde, the Republicans made a profit of nine million euros from the exercise (voters were charged two euros per round to cover costs), as compared to the Socialists in 2011, who actually lost money.

As the endorsed Republican candidate, Fillon is now a firm favorite to be France’s next president; William Hill this afternoon quotes him at almost three to one on, with the far-right’s Marine Le Pen at three to one against, Emmanuel Macron at 14-1, Manuel Valls 20-1 and incumbent François Hollande remarkable value at 50-1.

Despite those odds, Fillon’s victory at one level is good news for the Socialists. He is much less of a threat to their support base than Juppé would have been. Many broadly centrist voters will be put off by Fillon’s combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism; if the various centre and centre-left forces could unite around a single candidate, they could still make a credible showing.

For once, the Socialists will have a cause they can all agree on: defence of the French “social model” against what they will portray as Fillon’s rampant Thatcherism.

The problem is that unity on the centre-left looks unlikely in the extreme. The large ideological ground between Fillon and Le Pen will be represented in the first round next April not by a single candidate, but by more like half a dozen.

There will be a Socialist candidate, whose identity will be determined in a primary at the end of January. If Hollande runs – and with the 15 December deadline fast approaching it seems he has not yet made up his mind either way – he will be challenged, with the major threat coming from Arnaud Montebourg, representing the party’s left wing. If Hollande drops out, it’s expected he will endorse prime minister Valls, who represents the more pro-market or social democratic tendency.

Valls has equivocated on whether he might challenge Hollande himself; that now seems unlikely, but not impossible.

In addition to whoever the Socialists come up with, there will again be Jean-Luc Mélenchon representing the far left (plus a couple of Trotskyists on his flank), Yannick Jadot for the Greens and Sylvia Pinel for the Radicals (ie left centrists). And further to the centre is former Socialist Macron, who is making a strong showing in the polls after founding his own movement, En Marche!; plus veteran centrist François Bayrou of the Democratic Movement.

In a preferential system, this multiplicity of candidates would matter less – provided they exchanged preferences, they would be able to accumulate enough votes for one of them to be in the final two. But a two-round election doesn’t permit that. This was the problem in the infamous 2002 election: the various centrist and left candidates (even without the Trotskyists) had more than 41% of the vote between them, but they were all eliminated in the first round in favor of Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had only 19.9% and 16.9% respectively.

Perhaps that lesson will still be enough to bring some sort of unity to the centre-left, but it doesn’t look promising. Even leaving aside the personality differences, the division over France’s economic direction runs deep between Hollande/Valls/Macron/Bayrou on the one hand and Montebourg/Mélenchon/Jadot on the other, and it’s hard to imagine how it can be bridged.

If the conventional wisdom is right and Fillon faces Le Pen fille in the runoff, Socialist voters (and their leaders) will be put to the test. Will they again rally in defence of democracy to shut out the far right, despite their opposition to Fillon’s economic policies? Or will votes from the left leak to Le Pen, reasoning that in her way she is a better representative of traditional French dirigisme than Fillon is?

But it will also be a test for the right – not so much in France, but in the Anglosphere, where so many alleged free-marketeers and even libertarians have ranged themselves behind Donald Trump. How far will they carry their new populist logic? When they look to France, will they back the candidate who matches their policies, or the one who more strongly echoes their tribal hatreds?

It’s going to be an interesting year.

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