Fillon win sets up bitter battle with Le Pen over future of France

Far-right National Front leader to tilt further left to appeal to disenchanted working-class

by: Anne-Sylvaine Chassany in Paris

François Fillon secured an emphatic victory in France’s centre-right primary by shifting firmly to the right on the economy, social issues and law and order. But taking on Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential elections could prove a more difficult task.

The leader of the far-right National Front is preparing to tilt further to the left and appeal to disenchanted working-class voters in her pitch for the Élysée, exploiting popular anger towards the elites and the breakdown of old party loyalties.
“With Fillon’s candidacy, Marine Le Pen will jump to the defence of the more vulnerable parts of the electorate — those who feel they are the losers from globalisation and who want more protection from the state, not less,” said Bruno Cautres, professor at Sciences Po University.
Mr Fillon seized the nomination for the Republicans by appealing to a well-off conservative electorate seeking a return to authority and a traditional law and order agenda, and who were tempted by his economic platform that involves taking on the unions and slashing public spending.

He also portrayed himself as someone who would bring strength to the presidency after what many view as the weak leadership of the unpopular incumbent François Hollande and vowed to tackle homegrown radical Islam and restrict adoption rights for homosexual

The former prime minister won more than two-thirds of the 4.5m votes in Sunday’s primary run-off, easily beating the one-time favourite Alain Juppé whose broadly centrist pitch included a more liberal stance on Islam and moderate reformist platform.

Victory for practising Catholic Mr Fillon was secured by winning the backing of the provincial middle classes irked by social legislation such as legalising gay marriage and of rural voters demanding a tougher line on immigration.

The success of his strategy underlines a wider rightward shift in the French electorate on social issues, said Luc Rouban, researcher at CNRS. “We are observing a strong desire for authority across all categories of voters, including the working class and parts of the leftwing electorate.”
Supposing Mr Fillon and Ms Le Pen make it into the second round of voting in next year’s presidential election, polls suggest Mr Fillon would be able to defeat the FN leader thanks to support from mainstream voters from the left as well as the right.

Indeed, there are signs of nervousness within the FN that a Fillon candidacy will harm the party’s gains in regions such as the Riviera, where Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Ms Le Pen’s niece, made big electoral strides in recent local elections with a classic anti-immigrant, pro-small business platform.

Hailed by some as the true ideological heir to party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ms Maréchal-Le Pen has, like Mr Fillon, sought to exploit voter frustration over issues such as gay marriage.

“Fillon is posing a real strategic problem,” she said last week. “He is more dangerous for the FN.”

Yet a Fillon candidacy also helps to legitimise her aunt’s moves to embrace blue-collar workers and accelerate her transformation into a defender of the poor, low-skilled and unemployed.

Since taking over the leadership from her father in 2011 Ms Le Pen has puzzled FN hardliners by developing an economic programme that embraces elements of socialism and statism. She has called for the retirement age to be brought back down to 60, demanded a bolstering of public services and developed a protectionist programme that involves leaving the EU, restoring tariffs and national border controls for people and goods.

This strategy has helped her party thrive in areas of France that have felt the brunt of deindustrialisation, tapping into growing disillusion among traditional leftwing voters who feel abandoned by the mainstream political class. It is also likely to resonate with civil servants who have become Mr Fillon’s primary targets in his spending cuts plan.

Nationwide, about 45 per cent of blue-collar workers and 38 per cent of unemployed people or youngsters seeking their first job say they plan to vote for Ms Le Pen in the presidential elections, according to the latest data from Cevipof.

Whether Ms Le Pen can defy the pollsters who predict she will ultimately lose the election hinges on whether she can mobilise these voters, who make up about 40 per cent of the working population but whose turnout has tended to be low.

“The FN is gaining ground with the blue-collar workers and the lower earning employees,” Mr Rouban said. “Will Fillon be able to adopt a populist stance to attract them in the second round of the elections? Fillon is speaking to the bourgeoisie, the high earners and the business community at the moment.”

Ms Le Pen has remained silent since Mr Fillon’s nomination, leaving it to her lieutenants to go on the attack. “Fillon’s economic programme is extremely worrying,” David Rachline, her campaign manager, said on Monday. “He wants to tear down social security. The most vulnerable will no longer have healthcare.”

But the FN’s shift poses a serious threat to Mr Hollande’s Socialists, who are mired in divisions and torn over how to deal with the political weakness of a leader who has yet to declare whether he will seek re-election.

Mr Cautres said the pressure is on the Socialists to find a way to regain the initiative to fend off Ms Le Pen’s hostile takeover on its core voters. “The left cannot afford to let Ms Le Pen emerge as the main defender of the working class.”

Although polls continue to show that Mr Fillon will prevail and that Ms Le Pen cannot win the presidency, the outcome of the election is more uncertain than ever. “Those surveys are meaningless,” Mr Cautres warned.

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