Political pollsters and pundits who were confounded by Brexit and by Trump’s win must now face yet another challenge to conventional wisdom: the stunning victory of François Fillon in France’s conservative primaries for the 2017 presidential election. Fillon embodies all that France’s socialist, secular, and moralist elite reviles: He is a Thatcherite, a devout Catholic, and a political realist. The fact that he won the primaries by a two-third majority is but another confirmation of the gap between elitist narratives and popular feelings.
A partially secularized Catholic country with mercantilist traditions and a reverence for the state (État is always spelled with a capital “e”), France has a cultural hostility toward Anglo-Saxon capitalism. As Margaret Thatcher was rescuing the British economy in the 1980s, France elected in 1981 the socialist François Mitterrand who increased taxes, government spending, and state ownership. As Germany’s (socialist) chancellor Gerhard Schröder cut taxes and slashed unemployment benefits in 2003, France made it illegal (in 2002) to work for more than 35 hours a week. When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in 2007, he promised to catch-up with Germany and with Britain. Sarkozy did increase the retirement age from 62 to 65, but he turned out to be erratic and inconsistent, and the 2008 financial crisis deflated his reformist zeal.
The consequences are for all to see. Unemployment rates are 10.5% in France, 4.8% in Britain, and 4.2% in Germany. France’s GDP growth of 1.3% lies behind Britain and Germany’s 1.9%. While Germany has a budget surplus of 0.6% of GDP, France has a budget deficit of 3.3% of GDP. The French government overtaxes and overspends: government spending is 57.3% of GDP in France, 44.1% in Germany, and 43.8% in Britain.
François Fillon has been warning that France will be bankrupt and doomed if it does not get its acts together. His says he will curb public spending (he has committed to cut 500,000 government/civil service jobs), repeal the 35-hour limit on the working week, and trim a 3,000-page long labor code that discourages employment and repels foreign investors. The French left is up-in-arms against what it calls “ultra-liberalism” (whatever that means), but French voters seem to finally be willing to take their medicine and reverse their country’s decline.
Fillon’s economic platform was decried as too harsh (“ultra-liberal,” bien sûr) by his run-off contender in the conservative primaries, Alain Juppé. As for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, her economic ideology is hardly distinguishable from that of the far left: she reviles globalization and free-trade, wants to pull-out from the Euro, and would enroll the French state to subdue the market. François Fillon’s Thatcherite economics, therefore, makes him an outsider in France’s political landscape.
But Fillon is also an outsider because of his social conservatism and of his foreign policy realism. He is a practicing Catholic in a country where religion is mocked by the elites (Fillon is dubbed a “Catho,” the secularists’ catchword to deride church-goers). He is a faithful husband of 36 years and a father of five in a country where divorce, mistresses and affairs are de rigueur for politicians. And while he has vowed not to repeal abortion and gay marriage, he is an unabashed and proud conservative when it comes to family and to education.
His foreign policy ideas are unorthodox, too. He thinks that the West has mishandled Russia, and that cooperation with both Russia and Iran is necessary to completely defeat the Islamic State. Some accuse him of being a Russophile, but he seems in fact to be a classical Kissinger-type of a realist. His approach to foreign policy is one of Realpolitik -or raison d’État in French. Tellingly, the concept of raison d’État was developed by Richelieu, himself a devout Catholic who knew how to separate his faith from the interests of his country, and who explained this duality thus: “Man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter; the State has no immortality: its salvation is now or never.”
Fillon realizes that his willingness to cooperate with Iran for the sake of decimating the Islamic State raises eyebrows in Israel. “I know many will comment on this point of view, especially in Israel” Fillon admitted. “But for a question of survival, Israel has always known how to ally with people who do not accept international morals. And no one can blame them” he concluded. Fillon happens to be factually correct on that. He typically defends a Realpolitik approach to foreign policy. It is based on such an approach that Richelieu allied with the Protestants during the Thirty Years War, that Churchill joined forces with Stalin during World War II, and that Kissinger made an overture to Mao’s China during the Cold War.
If he gets elected and coordinates his moves with the Trump Administration, François Fillon might be able to diffuse tensions with Russia and to partially stabilize Syria. If France strictly adheres to the Iran nuclear deal, its coordination with Iran to fight the Islamic State might be tacitly acquiesced by the United States and by Israel.
By French standards, Fillon’s economic liberalism, social conservatism, and foreign policy realism are no less than revolutionary (in Anglo-Saxon countries, they would be rated as conservative). This might be the last chance for France to pull itself out of decline. Bonne chance, Monsieur Fillon.