Can conservative Fillon keep France's far-right at bay?

Adam Plowright
AFP
Francois Fillon is battling for the future of France, the European Union and mainstream politics in upcoming presidential elections
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Francois Fillon is battling for the future of France, the European Union and mainstream politics in upcoming presidential elections (AFP Photo/Eric Feferberg)

Paris (AFP) - Francois Fillon, having clinched the presidential nomination for the right-wing Republicans party, will now join a far bigger battle for the future of France, the European Union and mainstream politics in the West.

After Donald Trump's stunning victory in the United States, France's election next April and May has become a test for how far a rising tide of nationalist and populist politics will rise.

If polls are to be believed, Fillon's biggest rival is the far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen who sees herself as part of a spreading revolt against globalisation and the political elite.

Fillon's backers in the Republicans party believe his hard-right positions on protecting French culture, fighting Islamic extremism and combating crime will help to neuter Le Pen's appeal.

"When you enter someone else's house you do not take over," Fillon said in a message to immigrants last week in a sign that he is not scared to adopt the nationalist language of his opponents.

His conservative social views and appeal to rural voters as a devout Catholic from provincial France might also shield him from charges of being an out-of-touch metropolitan liberal.

"It appears your imminent victory is worrying Marine Le Pen," Bruno Le Maire, a rival-turned-supporter in the Republicans party, boomed at Fillon's final campaign rally in Paris last Friday.

Le Maire, a former minister defeated by Fillon in the first round of the Republicans primary, declared Le Pen was right to be scared -- to cheers from the mostly white, middle-class crowd.

-A symbol of the past? -

The stakes for France and Europe are high.

As well as pledging a crackdown on immigration, Le Pen has promised to pull her country out of the euro and organise a referendum on France's membership of the European Union.

While Britain's planned departure from the EU club was a major blow, the withdrawal of France, a founding member, could deliver the European project a coup de grace.

The FN under Le Pen has worked hard to try to shed the party's historic racist image and hopes to capitalise on economic gloom and concern about Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.

In the northeastern Parisian suburb of Raincy, a group of FN activists buoyed by Trump's victory and the Brexit vote gathered Sunday morning to hand out leaflets.

Local councillor Jordan Bardella rehearsed the attack lines on Fillon which are likely to be at the core of the party's pitch.

Firstly, he argued that Fillon's time as prime minister from 2007-2012 and various ministerial roles mean he is the sort of discredited establishment face that angry voters are keen to reject.

"He symbolises the past and I think French people want to turn the page," the 21-year-old rising figure in the party told AFP in front of a fruit and vegetable market.

Secondly, his programme "is unprecedented in its violence. It's a real attempt to smash the social system," Bardella added.

Fillon has vowed to cut 500,000 public sector jobs, scrap the 35-hour working week, and introduce social security and healthcare cuts designed to reduce France's chronic over-spending.

The 62-year-old, who grew up in a chateau near the town of Le Mans, has also expressed admiration for ex-British leader Margaret Thatcher, an advocate of globalisation, deregulation and free markets.

"Today the world is going totally in the opposite direction," FN vice president Florian Philippot said last Thursday. "For me, Fillon is Thatcher but 30 years too late."

- Unpredictable race -

Two new polls published on Sunday evening forecast that the Republicans party candidate will face -- and beat -- Le Pen in a second-round run-off vote in May.

This would be a re-run of the 2002 election when Le Pen's father Jean-Marie made it into the second round against the rightwing candidate Jacques Chirac.

Voters on the centre-right and left united in a so-called "Republican front" to keep Le Pen out.

This pattern was repeated in regional elections in France last December when centrist voters came together to prevent the FN winning a single council despite a strong showing in the first round.

Fillon's defeated rival Alain Juppe had argued that his programme of more gradual reform and less traditional views on abortion or gay rights would make him more palatable to leftist voters.

Jean-Yves Camus, an author and expert on the far-right in Europe, says that the election remains highly uncertain, with the Socialist party yet to nominate its candidate and the role of independents still unclear.

He says the attack on Fillon's economic programme will be the FN's most effective line, particularly among the sort of working class voters who helped propel Trump to the White House.

"At the end of the day, I still think the 'Republican front' will work," he told AFP. "I don't see French people making Marine Le Pen president of the Republic."