Francois Fillon remains a serious contender for the Elysee despite being hit by a financial scandal. What do we know about the conservative candidate's politics, his policies and his vision?
This article originally published on November 30 was updated on February 24.
Francois Fillon, former Prime Minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy and now the Republican candidate for France’s 2017 presidential election, took French politics by storm when he swept to victory in the conservative primary in November.
The centre-right’s contender in this spring’s presidential election has insisted he will still run for the Elysee even if he is charged over allegations that surfaced after his nomination. Fillon is being investigated over salaries paid to his wife and children out of public funds for jobs alleged to have been fake.
The scandal saw Fillon’s poll ratings plunge and he is no longer the presidential favourite he became following his primary triumph. However he remains well placed to reach the second round, where surveys have suggested either he or the independent Emmanuel Macron are likely to square off against Marine Le Pen, the far-right and highly controversial leader of the National Front.
Catholic and from conservative western France, Fillon says he will restore France’s pride and institutions, vowing to take pragmatic, if difficult, steps to assess the state of the Republic and stop what is not working.
Fillon’s platform is founded on his conviction France is a great power, a nation that “deserves better” and whose perceived decline “revolts” him, as he writes in his campaign literature. His campaign’s tenets are founded, he says, on the four years he has spent crisscrossing the country and meeting voters.
Fillon’s candidacy comes as the French electorate, concerned about terrorism, the migrant crisis, the integration of Islam, sluggish economic performance, high youth unemployment and a general malaise against what many see as President Hollande’s ineffective Socialist administration, appears ever more demanding for change and a departure from business as usual in Parisian politics.
Taking a hard line against Islam and promising sweeping reforms to the euro, the European Union and France’s labour code, Fillon campaigns on the idea of restructuring French politics from the ground up.
He’s suggested diminishing the size of the French state, while also attacking such stalwart institutions as the 35-hour work week.
His message visibly struck a chord. In November he received more than 66 percent of votes in a landslide Les Républicains primary victory. No one saw it coming. His rival, Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux was expected to win.
So what do we know about Fillon’s politics, his policies and his vision?
Fillon slashed budgets and public expenditure in his last role in government, as Sarkozy’s PM, and he is expected to take similar measures if he becomes French President.
His conservative policies of cutting (some) public spending, abolishing the wealth tax, and increasing state expenditure on defence and justice, have led some to compare Fillon to former British leaders. His strong words on trade unions proved a link too far to resist for French newspaper Liberation, which merged Mr Fillon’s face with that of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
En une, Libération grime Fillon en Thatcher https://t.co/MJNIlCZ1xKpic.twitter.com/P88GYg14oQ— BFMTV (@BFMTV) November 22, 2016
He has promised to break down the house in much a similar vein as Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington, by sacking 500,000 government employees and cutting over €100bn from the budget.
He also has an answer to Francois Hollande and Manuel Vall’s controversial labour law – rewrite the whole 3,000 page labour code. In addition, Fillon wants to raise the retirement age to 65, and lengthen the working week (which currently stands at 35-hours, the lowest in Europe) and reduce taxes on companies and the wealthy. All of which has made him predictably unpopular with labour unions.
The wealth tax, which allows the state to tax individuals on the value of their property (including jewellery and furniture), has become unpopular as it catches those whose property has risen in value, or inherited their wealth. Fillon aims to do away with the measure entirely.
Though Fillon hopes to boost defence and security spending, his €100bn promise would be achieved, he argues, through capping unemployment benefits, and cutting taxes for the middle classes over five years.
With an admiring glint of Thatcherism in his eye, a Fillon Presidency would aim to have the same transformative effect on France as the Iron Lady had on the UK. Fiercely free market facing, Fillon’s economic policies would mark a sea-change from the socialist agenda of Hollande and Valls at the Elysées.
Along with his own Brexit strategy – he has called for a good neighbourly deal with the UK – Fillon has also discussed plans for a US-Russian alliance over Syria, something that others fear will strengthen the Assad regime.
He hopes to reform the Schengen agreement, and create tougher rules for non-EU citizens who commit offences within the bloc. Another addition to the EU border under Fillon would be a tripling of the Frontex (the EU agency that manages the relationships between member border forces) budget, and creating a central EU border force.
But despite his focus on reforming the EU, he resembles right-wing competitor Marine Le Pen in his dislike for the institution as a whole. In fact, he said it is at best, ineffective, useless and irrelevant and at worst an obstacle to our development and freedom.
Perhaps the most intriguing of Fillon’s positions is his view of Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
Unlike his defeated primary rival Alain Juppe, Fillon has never accused Russia of war crimes in Syria. Instead, Fillon has praised the Kremlin’s actions in the Middle East since 2012, and extolled the virtues of Russia’s involvement in efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war.
He has also called for President Bashar al-Assad to remain in place at least until ISIL are defeated in Syria.
In 2013 Fillon was a guest of the Valdai forum, a club named after the lake near where he first met Putin, which aims to promote Russian foreign policy and intellectualism.
Fillon has also been a dissenting voice in the reaction to Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and welcomed the French parliamentary resolution calling for the end of EU sanctions over the invasion.
On Brexit, there has been speculation that Fillon’s free-market instincts – or even the fact that his wife Penelope is Welsh – may make him more amenable to a deal with the UK than other European leaders. However he has reportedly said that if the UK refused the free movement of EU citizens it should be denied the European financial passport “and the eurozone must take back clearing its currency”.
More recently, one of his campaign team, Bruno Le Maire, has been quoted as saying: “you can’t have one foot in (the EU) and one foot out”.
Fillon has also advocated an end to the Le Touquet treaty, which gives the UK the right to enforce its border in Calais, rather than on the other side of the Channel in Dover. He is similar to his former boss, President Sarkozy in that aim.
Social and Domestic Issues
Fillon was born a catholic in France’s rural west, and has brought those traditional values with him on his political journey. He has consistently argued against abortion and same-sex marriage, though he has recently pledged to preserve them both in the law.
Alongside social issues like these, Fillon is notably conservative in his views on Islam.
He says he aims to restore traditional French values by limiting immigration and introducing strict regulation of Islam. Fillon breaks from Le Pen and the National Front when it comes to religious symbols; he doesn’t want to ban the Burkini for example, but he did recently write a book entitled Overcoming Islamic Totalitarianism.