The long-time number two of French conservative politics, François Fillon, unexpectedly beat his former boss Nicolas Sarkozy in a presidential primary.
It was a huge blow to Sarkozy but not to the country’s likely shift to the right, since Fillon shares Sarkozy’s hard-line stance on immigration and security.
In the first round of the primary to elect the nominee for the centre-right Les Republicains party on Sunday, Fillon won 44 per cent of the votes, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe 28 per cent and Sarkozy 20 per cent, according to results from polls, published on Monday.
Fillon is now seen as the front-runner heading into the run off against Juppe on November 27. In next year’s presidential election, the conservative nominee’s toughest competition is likely to come from far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Fillon could prove a tough rival to Le Pen, since his traditional conservatism appeals to some of her voter base.
Fillon — who was prime minister under Sarkozy for five years — has cultivated an austere, classic style, banking on family and Catholic values.
“I defend values and I’m not going to excuse myself for defending values,” Fillon said in an interview on Monday night on TF1 TV. “I defend the family. I defend the authority of the state. I defend the love of my country. And maybe that seems square on a TV show, but I assure you that in the hearts of the French it’s not square at all.”
Jean-Daniel Levy of Harris Interactive polling institute said Fillon “appears to be calm, soft-spoken, with quite an international stature and an extremely clear language” especially on economic issues. This clearly speaks to conservative voters, Catholics and elderly people, he said.
Fillon is an opponent of same-sex marriage and has pledged to ban same-sex couples from adopting.
He’s also in line with Europe’s concerns about immigration, and pledges to hold a referendum on a quota system to reduce the number of legal immigrants by half.
Like Sarkozy, Fillon is in favour of a national law banning burkini swimwear on France’s beaches.
In September, Fillon published a small book — “Defeat Islamic Totalitarianism” — in which he vowed to fight Islamic extremism to avoid a “third world war.” He’s also widely considered pro-Russian, an approach he suggests is based on pragmatism.
He noted in the TV interview that Russia is the world’s biggest country and said, “We are pushing it toward Asia in a totally stupid way when it is in no way a threat to our security.”
Fillon advocates free-market policies and proposes to extend the working week by up to 48 hours, up from the current 35 hours. He wants to cut taxes, raise the retirement age from 62 to 65 and reduce the number of public servants.
He also wants a “strong Europe” including on defence and security issues, and says European borders should be strongly guarded, with extensive police checks.
Sunday’s vote has brought a brutal end to Sarkozy’s tentative comeback.
“I have no bitterness, no sadness,” Sarkozy said in a goodbye speech on Sunday night. “It’s now time for me to start a new life” focusing on “private passion,” he said, wishing France “good luck.”