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France's Fillon: Could he be the conservative the EU needs?

models of thought

François Fillon's unexpected win in the Republicain primaries has raised eyebrows. But his conservative policies, including cutting 500,000 public-sector jobs, could firm the EU's fraying Franco-German core.

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Francois Fillon, former French prime minister and member of Les Republicains political party, delivers his speech after partial results in the second round for the French center-right presidential primary election in Paris Sunday.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

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He takes a hard line on immigration in France and opposes gay marriage and adoption. On the economy, he promises to “tear the house down.” And when it comes to relations with Russia, he doesn’t think President Vladimir Putin is so bad after all.

François Fillon in a surprise surge won the conservative ticket for France’s crucial presidential election next year, and now pollsters predict he will be the last defense against Marine Le Pen of the National Front in a runoff election. And he takes some of his cues from the populists shaking up the political establishment of the West.

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Despite the unexpected rightward lurch in the center-right Republicain party that has raised eyebrows here and abroad, Mr. Fillon could ultimately be the politician who is able to hold Europe together at the center, particularly the Franco-German engine.

A self-declared Thatcherite, his plans to slash government spending and halt France’s economic decline – if it were to work – would help rebalance the Franco-German relationship that has been at the heart of the European Union and off-kilter for years. And while he does risk alienating leftists and progressives, he is trying to position himself as the candidate for change and reform, which could help redirect the anti-establishment vote his way.

“In that sense, Fillon, even though he is an older-timer, he is a bit of a fresh face,” says Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). “Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen benefit very much from a desire for change, but they don’t have a very strong change agenda. Essentially, they have rollback agendas.... Fillon has a reform agenda.”

The right amount of populism?

For all of the political uncertainty that Brexit unleashed – and the worrying votes ahead, in Austria and Italy this week alone – the stakes are seen to be the highest in France. The prospect of a far-right president, promising her own EU membership referendum, at the core of Europe could cause the entire project to unravel.

Polls have shown Ms. Le Pen will easily make it to Round 2 of the presidential vote. And with the Socialist party of President François Hollande in disarray, pollsters predict the race will come down to Fillon and Le Pen. His tough line on immigration, calling for the strictest controls, could take some wind out of her sails.

But they hold radically different economic positions. While Le Pen touts a protectionist model, which has earned her the support of former Socialists hit hard in the industrial areas of France, Fillon promises to cut spending by $106 billion, lengthen the work week, raise the retirement age, and get rid of 500,000 public-sector jobs. "Never has any candidate gone so far in submitting to the ultra-liberal [classical liberal] demands of the European Union," Ms. Le Pen said of her rival.

His economic plans will deter some leftists and union leaders fighting for workers' rights, says Etienne Schweisguth, a professor at the Center for European Studies at Sciences Po in Paris. But he sees no risk at present that Le Pen could beat Fillon. Just last year, the left held their noses in regional elections, voting for a hard-line conservative in the south of France, to thwart a National Front victory there.

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Vincent Barea, a 25-year-old who works in finance in Paris, says he considers Fillon way “too traditional” for his taste, especially on social issues. He supports Emmanuel Macron, who left President Hollande's cabinet and announced his own presidential bid. Still, if it came down to a race between Fillon and Le Pen, Mr. Barea says his choice is clear. “I would vote for Fillon, unhappily,” he says.

Abroad, France’s primary race drew relief because Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s polarizing former president, was kicked out in the first round, reducing the chances of a runoff between him and Le Pen, which would have been even more unpredictable.

Questions remain

But Fillon is not without risks either.  While his economic reform is what many in Europe – notably Germany – have been asking of France, it is far from clear that Fillon would be able to carry out those plans, leaving France crippled by economic malaise. Fillon’s positions on social issues and migration are more hard-line than those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who announced last week she’d be running for a fourth term.

The biggest concern between the two powers, however, would be Fillon’s conciliatory attitude toward Russia, says Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, the director of the Europe's Future program at Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany. “The question is, since Germany has been driving the EU toward sanctions against Russia, is Fillon the right partner to continue on this way?”

He says Germany may have been more at ease had Fillon’s rival Alain Juppé won, as had been expected until Fillon’s last-minute ascent. Not only would French leftists have had an easier time voting for him, shoring up support against Le Pen, Mr. Juppé also has a more centrist position in line with that of Ms. Merkel, including on Russia.

Roland Freudenstein, policy director of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, the official think tank of the European People’s Party in Brussels, agrees that Juppé would have been more predictable, but that could have backfired. Juppé “reminds me a little bit of Hillary Clinton, representing the ultra-establishment.” That could have made Juppé a loose cannon, he says, not in terms of how he might have acted, “but in terms of how French voters react[ed] to him.”

As for Mr. Putin, Mr. Freudenstein says: “Fillon is a Gaullist, and that means that in the end, the Franco-German element is going to have precedence over anything Franco-Russian.”