France presidential election, Francois Fillon: reformist champion for the French right

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French member of Parliament and candidate for the right-wing primaries ahead of France's 2017 presidential elections, Francois Fillon looks on as he delivers a speech following the first results of the primary's second round on November 27, 2016 play

French member of Parliament and candidate for the right-wing primaries ahead of France's 2017 presidential elections, Francois Fillon looks on as he delivers a speech following the first results of the primary's second round on November 27, 2016

(AFP)

Francois Fillon, the candidate who will represent the French right in next year's presidential election, is a free-market reformer, devout Catholic and motor sport fan who has promised to transform France.

Fillon, 62, has professed admiration for Britain's 1980s prime minister Margaret Thatcher and vowed to slash public spending to shrink the French state.

"You have to tear the house down to properly rebuild it," he has said.

The new flag-bearer of French conservatives came from behind a week ago to establish himself as the new champion of the right.

On Sunday, he confirmed his supremacy, beating fellow former prime minister Alain Juppe, 71, in a US-style primary to win the nomination of the Republicans party and its allies.

"France has never been more right-wing," Fillon, who was a voice of moderation as premier under Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012 but has since shifted to the right, declared this week.

For too long traditionalists had been stereotyped as "reactionaries nostalgic for a musty France", he said.

The unflappable father of five who himself admitted in a M6 television interview he had a "boring image" has emerged as the right's best hope to retake power after five years of Socialist rule.

Polls show him likely to go head-to-head with Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN), in the second round of the election in May.

In the first round of the primary on November 20, Fillon took more than double the votes garnered by Sarkozy, who once dismissed him as a "Mr Nobody".

Quietly assured

Perhaps because of his understated style, Fillon was not taken seriously until his late acceleration in the two-month primary campaign.

Key dates in the long political career of France's Francois Fillon play

Key dates in the long political career of France's Francois Fillon

(AFP)

An amateur rally driver who was born in Le Mans, home of the world-renowned 24-hour race, he himself had always predicted he would make the final.

After a series of assured performances in TV debates, voters swung in behind him as an alternative to the divisive Sarkozy and to Juppe, seen by many as lacking reformist zeal.

Fillon has pledged radical changes to kickstart the ailing French economy and drive down unemployment stuck at around 10 percent.

He has pledged to scrap the 35-hour week, one of the sacred cows of the French left.

He has also pledged to slash an eye-popping 500,000 jobs from the public sector -- reforms criticised by Juppe and other opponents as too brutal.

"I'm tagged with the label of an (economic) liberal in the same way they would daub crosses on the doors of lepers in the Middle Ages," Fillon has joked.

He argues he is merely "a pragmatist".

Candidate for the right-wing primaries ahead of France's 2017 presidential elections, Francois Fillon pledges radical changes to kickstart the ailing French economy and drive down unemployment stuck at around 10 percent play

Candidate for the right-wing primaries ahead of France's 2017 presidential elections, Francois Fillon pledges radical changes to kickstart the ailing French economy and drive down unemployment stuck at around 10 percent

(AFP)

Fillon is a practising Catholic who has been married to his Welsh wife Penelope for more than 30 years and lives in a 12th century manor house near Le Mans.

He voted against gay marriage when it was introduced by Socialist President Francois Hollande and has said he wants to amend the 2013 law to partly repeal gay adoption rights.

His views on abortion -- he is personally opposed but says he will not change the law or funding for it -- have also been in the spotlight.

"My conscience is my business," he declared.

Fillon also took a harder line on questions of identity and Islam that dominated the primary after a string of jihadist attacks in France.

He penned a book over the summer called "Defeating Islamic Totalitarianism" and believes "there is a problem linked to Islam" in France after a series of attacks by homegrown jihadists.

"No, France is not a multicultural country. France has a history, a language and a culture which have naturally been enriched from outside," Fillon said on Thursday.

Support from Putin

The self-declared "Gaullist" -- a form of nationalism that proposes an independent and strong France -- has been in politics for around 40 years.

He formed a bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin when both men overlapped as prime ministers from 2008-2012 and their closeness has led to questions about his foreign policy.

Fillon maintains that France must keep its alliance with the United States but also restore ties with Moscow, which he sees as central to resolving the conflict in Syria.

"The question is: must we continue to provoke the Russians, refusing dialogue with them and pushing them to be more and more violent, aggressive and less and less European?" he said in October.

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