Francois Fillon′s great race | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 21.11.2016
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Francois Fillon's great race

Francois Fillon won the first round of the conservative primary. It was an unexpected victory for the former prime minister. Who is the man who wants to be France's next president?

In his spare time, Francois Fillon is an enthusiastic motorsport fan. He often gets behind the steering wheel of a fast car himself and drives a few laps at the track in LeMans, his hometown and host to the famous 24-hour race. Until now, he hasn't been seen in the political fast lane.

For a long time, Fillon was active in the second tier of French politics. He was hard-working and loyal, but never stood in the spotlight. His career somehow resembled that of a failed heir to a throne. But then, suddenly, in the first round of the conservative primary on November 20, he surprisingly overtook the assumed favorites Alain Juppe and Nicolas Sarkozy. Now Fillon suddenly has a chance to defeat Juppe and step up to the winner's podium.

The 62-year-old, a professional politician, may finally be able to move into the Elysee Palace. Who is the man who has long been a high-ranking French politician, yet never been considered a serious contender for presidency? 

Frankreich François Fillon (Getty Images/AFP/T. Samson)

Fillon following his surprise victory after the conseratives' first round of voting

Respectable and not scandalous

"Francois Fillon stands for absolute respectability," political scientist Dominik Grillmayer, from the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg, told DW. In public appearances Fillon comes across as "deliberate, modest and confident." For five years, between 2007 and 2012, Fillon served as prime minister under President Sarkozy, and during that time he attracted little negative attention. Fillon is the first French prime minister who managed to complete an entire term with a president. Before that, he had served as minister of social affairs and minister of national education.

"Fillon is characterized by continuity and respectability," said Grillmayer. He is seen as a clean politician among the political elite. There once was an incident with a luxury vacation on the Nile in 2010, to which then Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak had invited him. Yet compared with his opponent Alain Juppe, who has been tried for illegal party financing, it seems like a negligible offense.

A Catholic with conservative values

Fillon, who was born in Le Mans in northwestern France, stands for traditional Catholic values. He is a lawyer who is regarded as thoroughly conservative. He rejects "marriage pour tous" (marriage for everyone), meaning gay marriage and also is against adoption rights for same-sex couples. He has been married for 36 years and has five children with his wife. They live in a 12th century castle in the southwestern department of Sarthe.

Frankreich François Fillon (Getty Images/AFP/E. Feferberg)

Fillon with his wife - a conservative and Catholic couple

Fillon advocates a right-wing, Islam-critical course. Just this autumn, his essay on "radical Islam" was published. Fillon wants to monitor mosques more closely and arrest people who have contacts to organizations like the so-called "Islamic State." Furthermore, he wants to make it more difficult for foreigners to access social and healthcare systems. He has also called for a cap on immigration.

Neoliberal hardliner

Fillon clearly supports the idea of a neoliberal economy and admires former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The former French prime minister wants to cut government spending by 100 billion euros ($106 billion) and get rid of 500,000 jobs in the public sector. He has no respect for the country's "sacred cows" - he wants to abolish the 35-hour work week and raise the retirement age. At the same time, he wants to significantly reduce taxes and duties for companies to make France more competitive again.

Will he solve problems or divide the nation?

Fillon is presenting himself as a problem-solver, someone who will put La Grande Nation back on track, said France expert Grillmayer. But the political scientist warned his controversial economic plans are going much too far. Not only the left, but people in his own camp fear he will further divide society.

Fillon has launched a radical campaign. His demands have much in common with those of right-wing populists. He is trying to win over protest voters from the National Front (FN). Unlike Nicolas Sarkozy, French voters believe in Fillon's credibility.

Frankreich François Fillon (Getty Images/AFP/N. Mollo )

Will Fillon finally reach France's political summit?

"People buy into the idea that he wants to implement these measures out of deepest conviction and that they are not just tactics," explained Grillmayer. Fillon is not one to jump on whatever bandwagon is convenient. His convictions have been known for some time. Fillon has been peddling his Catholic, conservative and capitalist values throughout the country for years.

Grillmayer believes that Fillon has masterminded his own presidential candidacy. Because he is considered to be respectable and reliable, many French people see him as someone who can embody the dignity of the presidency. Will Fillon overtake his opponent Juppe on November 27 and then break away from the rest of his rivals, like FN's Marine Le Pen? It remains to be seen. The presidential race is still on.