Fillon for President

France Returns to Its Conservative Roots

François Fillon has emerged as the center-right candidate for the French presidency. His choice is symptomatic of a country that has never left its conservative, Catholic roots behind.

By Ullrich Fichtner and Simone Salden

 Photo Gallery: Fillon's 'Revolution of Common Sense'


The nave of Église Saint-Lambert de Vaugirard is dark, with only the crypt bathed in yellow candlelight. Every Wednesday evening at 8:30, young Catholics meet here in Paris' 15th arrondissement for a prayer circle. The party headquarters of the Républicains, the conservative political party, are just 500 meters away.

The priest doesn't want journalists to ask questions in the church, and certainly not any that have to do with politics. "This is a private gathering, please go," we are told.

But some of the young men and women there do have something to say -- outside in front of the church walls. "I think François Fillon is a good choice," says Pauline, who has wrapped her thick blue scarf around her head. "I think he's credible, also on moral issues," says Marine, 29, who adds that she is opposed to gay marriage.

"Of course I voted for Fillon," mumbles a young man, his hair carefully parted on the side.

"He is the only sensible choice for a Catholic," he adds, before turning up the collar of his overcoat and disappearing into the dark night.

With the choice of François Fillon two Sundays ago as the Republicans' candidate for next year's French presidential election, a France has spoken that is, at its core, much more conservative and Catholic than is readily apparent from the outside. They may be a numerical minority, but their concerns and aspirations are shared by many French.

Whether or not Fillon, the 62-year-old former prime minister with a predilection for bright red socks, will ultimately win the election, the Republicans' experiment with holding public primaries was certainly successful. Whereas the socialists surrounding President François Hollande are currently tearing each other apart, the upstanding Fillon has taken up the battle against the inflammatory Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing populist Front National.

Fillon's success has caused a commotion in France's political establishment, and not just because it was so unexpected. The excitement primarily results from the widespread feeling that a long-time political vacuum has suddenly been filled.

France's center-right -- which spent years bickering over leadership questions, party finances and the constant escapades of former leader Nicolas Sarkozy -- is back. After losing the presidency to Hollande in 2012, the conservative camp lacked both leadership and ideas as it bumbled through the societal debates of recent years. But now it once again has a leader who seems to know the direction in which he would like to take the party.

A Clear Victory

Both the Républicains and their predecessor, the Gaullist party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), long neglected the country's Christian conservative milieu. But it is a powerful element in French politics, something that the Front National and the identitarian movement have both recognized and profited from. Now, that milieu has propelled Fillon to a clear victory.

In a survey taken among the almost 3 million people who voted for Fillon, 72 percent said they come from a Catholic background. These voters look on disapprovingly when the country's highest administrative court, as it did in early November, rules that city halls in the country are only allowed to display pre-Christmas nativity scenes under certain conditions so as to maintain the separation between church and state. They don't want another president like Sarkozy, who unabashedly fumbled around with his mobile phone during an audience with the pope. Or a president like François Hollande, who rode his scooter to his lover's apartment and then provided journalists with intimate details.

An important factor in Fillon's success thus far is that conservative voters don't see him as someone who will engage in such antics.

Fillon, who went to a Jesuit high school and was once, at 27, the country's youngest member of parliament, has been married to the same woman for more than 30 years and has never kept silent about his Catholic roots. In his book "Faire," which can be loosely translated as "action," Fillon emphasizes his religious upbringing: "I am Catholic. I was raised in this tradition and I have maintained this faith."

Historian Denis Pelletier agrees that conservative Catholics have played a significant role in Fillon's rise. Speaking with the French daily Le Monde, Pelletier defined this non-homogenous group as being efficient, extremely active on social media and quick to mobilize. He says one reason they are particularly active is that they feel as though they are a minority in the ongoing debate over the allegedly increasing Islamization of France. Of particular importance to these Fillon supporters, Pelletier says, is their feeling that they must defend themselves and their values.

Just a few weeks ago, this conservative bloc demonstrated the power it can exert on short notice. In mid-October, several thousand people took to the streets of Paris waving banners reading "I'm Voting Family in 2017." At the concluding address in the Trocadéro neighborhood, participants -- including numerous families with small children -- waved pink and light-blue flags. It was a warning to the political class currently in office -- or, one could almost say -- a public threat.

Storm of Protest

The demonstration was organized by "Manif pour tous" ("Demonstration for all"), a movement that began in 2012 as a reaction to the planned introduction of gay marriage, a proposal known as "mariage pour tous." It has since become a registered political party. Some 65 percent of the French support marriage between same-sex couples, but when the law -- known as "Loi Taubira" after the justice minister responsible -- came up for a vote, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to voice their disapproval.

The result was a storm of protest in the country against non-traditional families and gender theories, with a particular focus on the adoption rights of same-sex couples. The television images of these largely young demonstrators didn't correspond to the public image that many have of the Fifth Republic, despite the fact that their election slogan includes the word "Égalité," or "equality."

Even then, the Catholic Church played an important role in mobilizing the masses. One of the primary issues that drove protesters into the streets was the concern that the ban on artificial insemination for same-sex couples would be lifted. The protest march a few weeks ago also targeted the issue. But until October, not a single leading candidate from the center-right had taken these concerns seriously. Except for one: François Fillon.

To be sure, the father of five didn't take part in the demonstration himself, but he did send one of his most important supporters from the primary election campaign. He also sent a message to the agitated marchers: "I support everyone who supports the family." Subsequently, he emphasized in every televised debate that he would not allow further lines to be crossed.

Insiders have reported that the ultra-conservatives from Manif pour tous have repeatedly provided Fillon's team with logistical support during the election campaign. Such support was apparently provided ahead of Fillon's last large rally, held on November 18 inside the Palais des Condgrès, ahead of the second round of voting. "Shortly before the event, Fillon's team called movement leaders, asking them to come and lend their support," a Manif pour tous member told the French magazine L'Obs.

'Faith à la Carte'

"The Christian tradition is an important part of French history and culture," says François Foret, political scientist at the Free University of Brussels. "When Fillon emphasizes his faith, he does so out of this traditionalism."

Foret has examined the role of religion in European politics and sees similarities to what is happening in France elsewhere in Europe, such as in Italy and Poland. Particularly in France, though, Foret believes there is a kind of "faith à la carte." "Religion is only one part of people's identity. They pick out certain aspects that conform to their own lifestyle."

Those who accuse François Fillon of being too close to Manif pour tous and other Catholic groups overlook the fact that they make up a significant portion of France's conservative camp -- and that their values are shared by a majority in this traditionally minded country.

For such voters, one Fillon gesture following his victory was particularly symbolic. "I extend my hand to all who would like to rebuild our country," Fillon said to the television cameras. "I invite all who carry in their hearts the pride in being French." He then put his right hand over his heart and kept it there.

"La fierté d'être français" -- "the pride of being French" -- is perhaps Fillon's most important message of this campaign. And it has proven attractive in a country where increasing numbers of young men and women are applying for jobs with the police and military to serve their country in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks -- in a land engaged in a debate over burkinis and the serving of pork in school cafeterias. Fillon remains rooted in France's secular tradition and has called for school uniforms and a more state-centered history curriculum as a way of promoting integration. He has presented himself as a man of convictions, but not in an aggressive way. Much of what he embodies is so old fashioned that it has almost become trendy again.

His liberal economic program, on the other hand, contains elements that would be enough to topple 10 successive French presidents. Adopting the same sober tone he uses when talking about the pope, Fillon has announced his intention to cut half-a-million civil servant jobs, to eliminate the 35-hour work week and to raise the retirement age. He refers to his program as a "revolution of common sense," though were he to push it through, it would be a rude awakening for most French to the economic realities of the 21st century.

In a Canoe, on a Tractor

"He has always stuck to his line," says Marine, a Catholic woman from the 15th arrondissement. "The changes are necessary. And at least with him, I don't have the impression that he will surprise us by suddenly throwing his convictions overboard."

Even the often-derisive accusation that Fillon is provincial is something of a political boomerang in France. It is, after all, still true what Friedrich Sieburg, a German Francophone, wrote in his 1929 book "God in France?" The surface of political life as viewed from Paris, he wrote, cannot hide a different reality. "The countryside, which nobody truly knows and whose sleepiness remains opaque to all, holds all the power."

In the countryside, there are further political groups that candidates for political office must pay close attention to if they want to rise to power in Paris. That includes hunters, whose rights no French president has ever dared curtail. That includes farmers, of whom there are twice as many as there are in Germany and who still stand by the old myths of agro-romanticism. That includes the fishermen, who are also half-mythical figures that a conservative candidate needs to win.

Thus far, Fillon has managed to bridge the gap between the countryside and the capital. He is respected by the middle class in his voting district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés just as he is in Sarthe, the conservative agricultural region in northwestern France where his is from.

In Sarthe, Fillon owns a manor house, complete with a tower from the 14th century. The glossy photos of him and his family taken three years in front of the castle-like estate that were printed in the magazine Paris Match last year would have been enough to end the careers of some politicians. But Fillon didn't just pose in the photos as lord of the manor. He was also photographed sitting in a canoe, in the paddock and on a red tractor.

In France, it all goes together.

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