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23 November 2016, Gateway House

French polls: a foregone conclusion?

Francois Fillon, a lacklustre conservative, last week emerged as a victorious presidential candidate in Les Republicains’ first round of a primary, a first in the party’s history. Here’s why this outcome is a momentous one.

Editor-in-Chief, Radio France International

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The French will elect their president in May 2017, but, in all likelihood, 10% of the 45 million-strong electorate may have already made a definitive decision about who the next president will be.

Under the French electoral system, citizens elect the president directly through a two-round election. If none of the candidates gets an absolute majority in the first round, the two highest scoring ones compete in the second, thus ensuring that the president will be elected with more than 50% of the votes cast. Or, as observers have summarised cynically,  “In the first round, you choose the candidate of your liking; in the second, you eliminate the one you dislike the most.”

According to the polls so far,  far-right leader Marine Le Pen (Front National Party) seems to be riding the popularity charts, and will, therefore, qualify for the second round. It also seems clear  that any candidate from the left, whether it is the outgoing president François Hollande, or any other, will fare third on the evening of the first round. It is therefore safe to assume that the second round will be a contest between Marine Le Pen and the candidate chosen by the right of centre party, Les Républicains.

The very idea of a politician from the far right running the country has been anathema to the French until now. In 2002, after the elimination of the leftist candidate Lionel Jospin, when the choice was between the rightist incumbent President Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father) in the second round of the presidential election, voters from the left voted en masse for Chirac to prevent Le Pen from being elected. Consequently, it is assumed that the candidate that  Les Républicains select will  be the next French president.

On November 20, about 4 million members and sympathisers of Les Républicains took part, for the first time in their party’s history, in the first round of a primary to choose their presidential candidate from among seven contenders. Judging from the polls, it was widely expected that former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé will be selected for the final round, due to take place on Sunday, November 27. Juppé qualified, but with a mere 29% of  votes whereas the flamboyant Sarkozy, with barely 20%, was eliminated from the competition.

The unexpected winner, François Fillon, a lacklustre conservative, who has been Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years, received a stunning 44% of the votes. It seems more than likely that he will be Les Republicains’ candidate–and thus, the next French president–what with Sarkozy having already announced that he would support him for the second round.

Fillon is little known beyond France’s borders, he differs from Juppé on many counts. Foreign policy is an area of disagreement.. When it comes to Islam, Juppé wants French Muslims to integrate better into French society, refusing to stigmatise the entire community because of the actions of terrorists, claiming to be inspired by Islam. Fillon has authored a book – ‘To Overcome the Islamic Totalitarianism’ – declaring that “There is no religious problem in France: there is a problem with Islam.” He has also insisted that France should review its ties with Saudi Arabia and Qatar whom he sees as sponsors of Islamic extremism, and wants it to open up more boldly to Iran.

Juppé also finds it inconceivable to show leniency towards Syrian president Bashar Assad whom he holds mainly responsible for the 370,000 deaths in Syria since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.  Fillon, on the contrary, believes that defeating the Islamic State (IS) requires an alliance with all those who share the same goal, including Assad, and therefore advocates closer cooperation with Russia. Some of Fillon’s keen supporters, including his spokesperson Valérie Boyer, have met in Damascus with the Syrian president whereas France withdrew its ambassador to Syria in 2012.

Fillon, who makes no secret of being close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, promotes an overall change of policy vis-à-vis Moscow, supporting lifting of sanctions imposed on it after its annexation of Crimea.  Juppé, while supporting better coordination with Moscow and calling on Putin to respect international treaties, strongly differs with Russia on its West Asian policy and security in Europe. His views on the European Union, though, hardly differ from President Hollande’s current policy. Both leaders believe that the EU has gone too far on the path of integration, which has elicited a nationalist backlash from European voters, and emphasise the need to have a strong and united EU, based on the French-German axis. Fillon, dwelling on a more traditional Gaullist approach, tends to favour national policies over Brussels-based supranational decisions.

It is striking, given the geopolitical and economic importance of Asia that neither Fillon nor Juppé have expressed their views on what their policy towards the continent, more specifically China and India, is likely to be.

If Juppé is to become the next president, French foreign policy will have continuity for the most part: he will follow in the footsteps of Mitterrand, Chirac (his mentor), and, even to some extent, Sarkozy, under whom he served as foreign minister, for two years. Fillon, on the contrary, is expected to strive for a marked rapprochement with Russia and introduce a measure of Euroscepticism.

It is tempting, but misleading, to compare Fillon’s success with Donald Trump’s, as the two men differ deeply in temperament, views, and experience. Fillon is a seasoned politician who became member of parliament more than three decades ago, has held many elected offices and his convictions are deeply rooted in a traditionalist Catholic background—he’s more akin to a Thatcherite than a Trumpist.

Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, has remained remarkably discreet so far, considering she is still ahead in the polls. Even if the French electorate has steadily refused to allow in the far right, it would be short-sighted to dismiss the possibility of her being elected next May. Recent examples– the referendum on Brexit, the American election, and Sarkozy’s defeat—show resoundingly that voters often behave contrary to pollsters’ and analysts’ predictions.

Olivier Da Lage is editor-in-chief at Radio France International. He contributes to Gateway House in his personal capacity.

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