The right: Fillon

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The right: Les Républicains (LR) and Union des démocrates et indépendants (UDI) – François Fillon

The French right has gone through several complicated rearrangements, internal conflicts and damaging scandals since Nicolas Sarkozy lost the presidency in 2012. The right had been in power since 2002, and thus needed to acclimate itself to being an opposition party. Nicolas Sarkozy had lost reelection, but he remained determined to regain it in 2017 – down, but definitely not out, driven by a desire for revenge against somebody (Hollande) who he considered to be a lightweight. In private, Sarkozy called Hollande a “little fatty who dyes his hair” or a “provincial notary on antidepressants”. Everybody instinctively assumed that Sarkozy was plotting his revenge for 2017.

However, as much as the party had been willing to keep silent behind him for five years, his defeat meant that a large bench of ambitious politicians sharpened their knives and aimed at the presidency. Festering internal tensions and personal rivalries boiled over during the disastrous November 2012 UMP leadership election between François Fillon and Jean-François Copé. The messy, contentious and rigged internal election destroyed the party’s image and badly hurt the popularity of both Fillon and Copé – a plague on both their houses. The party was nevertheless saved from implosion by a stopgap compromise, although for a few months there were two UMP groups in the National Assembly. Following the EP elections in 2014, where the UMP performed poorly, Copé was shoved out by the Bygmalion scandal and the leadership was temporarily held by a ‘triumvirate’ of former prime ministers Alain Juppé (1995-1997), Jean-Pierre Raffarin (2002-2005) and François Fillon (2007-2012) with Luc Chatel as secretary-general.

Copé’s fall paved the way for Nicolas Sarkozy’s return to active politics. Following his 2012 defeat, he took a backseat but remained active behind the scenes, opining on political news and his party’s internal crises. He also needed to fend off several corruption scandal and indictments. In December 2012, the campaign finance commission rejected his 2012 campaign finance report, for spending over the legal limit in the runoff, although UMP members raised over 11 million euros in just two months to recoup the financial loses. In March 2013, he was placed under investigation in the Bettencourt affair, but charges against him were dropped in October 2013.

During the 2012 campaign, Mediapart published documents which suggested that former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi gave €50 million to Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. During the Libyan civil war, Gaddafi regime officials including his son Saif al-Islam had said that Libya had funded the 2007 campaign. In April 2013, a Parisian court opened an anonymous judicial investigation in the Gaddafi case. In March 2014, Le Monde revealed that Sarkozy (and former interior ministers Claude Guéant and Brice Hortefeux, close allies of Sarkozy cited in the Gaddafi case) had their phones bugged as part of the judicial investigation, beginning in September 2013. The transcripts of the wiretaps had found that Sarkozy and his lawyers were benefiting from insider information on the legal process from judges and law enforcement sources. In February 2016, Sarkozy was placed under investigation for illegal campaign financing in the Bygmalion affair.

These scandals had a negative effect on Sarkozy’s image with the general public, but it didn’t really affect his popularity among the UMP’s rank and file membership. Despite his defeat in 2012, Sarkozy remained extremely popular with the UMP base, and Hollande’s subsequent massive unpopularity only reinforced their attachment to the former president – a “told you so” moment for them, if you will. The 2012 UMP leadership election had shown that the party remained largely sarkozyste – in a parallel ‘motions vote’, the winner (27.8%) was the newly formed La Droite forte (aping Sarkozy’s 2012 La France Forte slogan), run by two young sarkozyste media darlings (Guillaume Peltier and Geoffroy Didier) and basically running entirely on vacuous right-wing slogans and platitudes. In the fall of 2014, as the UMP prepared to hold a new leadership vote to replace Copé, it became increasingly clear that Sarkozy planned to precipitate his political comeback by seizing the presidency of his party (as he had done in 2004, eyeing 2007). On September 19, Sarkozy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the UMP, in his usual melodramatic terms (saying that he had little choice but to return to politics). He was, naturally, the prohibitive favourite.

He faced two opponents: Bruno Le Maire, a young (45) two-term deputy and former cabinet minister (agriculture, from 2009 to 2012), running as a reformist vowing party reforms and a more moderate political orientation (he abstained on same-sex marriage rather than vote against and took the most pro-EU line of the candidates); and Hervé Mariton, a long-time but little-known deputy from the UMP’s right with clearly economically liberal and socially conservative stances. Le Maire and Mariton campaigned heavily, mostly to increase their notoriety within party ranks, while Sarkozy largely opted to sit back and await his coronation. Sarkozy’s campaign or lack thereof was criticized, described as being messy, disorganized, directionless and without a real platform while Sarkozy himself was said to be bored, tired and rather uninterested by the whole process. In terms of ‘ideas’, Sarkozy largely went for vague and empty right-populism, a mix of economic liberalism (cutting taxes and spending, attacks on ‘welfare dependency’, labour market deregulation), Bonapartist populism (referendums) and huff-and-puff conservatism on immigration.

In November 2014, in a fairly high-turnout vote (58% of members participated), Nicolas Sarkozy was predictably elected president of the UMP in a landslide, taking 64.5% of the vote against 29.2% for Le Maire and 6.3% for Mariton. However, Sarkozy’s result was underwhelming while Le Maire won an excellent result. One of Sarkozy’s main preoccupation as leader was changing the party’s name. The name UMP had been tainted by the 2012 leadership disaster and the several scandals associated with the party and leaders, and Marine Le Pen’s “UMPS” moniker had stuck. In May 2015, the UMP was renamed Les Républicains (LR) or ‘The Republicans’, a name which predictably sparked some contrived outrage – mostly because of the appropriation of the name ‘republican’ for themselves, something which is always contentious in French politics (where everybody wants to be the ‘true’ republicans).

In more substantive terms, the UMP-LR under Sarkozy did acceptably well in the March 2015 departmental elections and December 2015 regional elections, although in both cases the eternal question of the party’s strategy and official position with regards to the FN in runoffs caused headaches. Since Sarkozy’s presidency (the 2011 cantonal elections), the UMP-LR position on the FN in runoffs had been the so-called ni-ni, neither FN nor left (PS) – refusing to choose, at least at the national level, between the FN or the left in runoffs where the right had been eliminated or refusing to bow out of triangulaires where the FN had a chance at victory. Sarkozy and Copé had imposed the ni-ni on the party, but more moderate members of the FN, like Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet openly disagreed with it. In December 2015, after the regional elections, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was fired from the LR leadership, unofficially for her ‘dissident’ stance on the FN. In short, since 2012/2014, the FN has become a real threat to the mainstream right – no longer just a nuisance which would invariably provide vote reserves for the right in runoffs against the left.

LR’s ally is the Union of Democrats and Independents (Union des démocrates et indépendants, UDI), a centre-right (ostensibly centrist) party/confederation of separate parties founded after the 2012 legislative elections on the basis of a parliamentary group of the same name in the National Assembly (later in the Senate).

The UDI is modeled on the old Union for French Democracy (UDF), one of the two major parties of the French right between its creation in 1978 and the creation of the ‘big-tent’ UMP in 2002. The UDF, until its re-foundation as a ‘united’ party in 1998, was a confederation of separate independent parties uniting several families of the non-Gaullist right: liberals, Christian democrats, right-wing radicals and old anti-communist social democrats. A majority of the UDF – primarily the liberals (who had already split from the UDF in 1998 to create Démocratie libérale, DL) and radicals but also many of its Christian democrats – joined the UMP upon its creation in 2002, leaving a reduced rump (28 deputies elected in 2002) behind François Bayrou. Under Bayrou between 2002 and 2007, the UDF sought to take its independence from the right and become a ‘free and independent’ party of the centre – an idea which had strong popular appeal but was opposed by the majority of the UDF’s traditional centre-right parliamentarians. Bayrou’s very strong result in the 2007 election (18.6%) convinced him that his idealistic centrist political project of surpassing the ‘old’ left-right cleavages had widespread popular support and he launched a new party, the Democratic Movement (Mouvement démocrate, MoDem) to carry forth his new political project. However, Bayrou’s risky strategy ran into the opposition of the majority of UDF incumbents, most of whom had won their seats in 2002 because they had no UMP opponents. Besides the UDF’s longstanding ties to the centre-right, in pure strategic terms, the UDF as a minor party was dependent on the (stronger) right to win seats anywhere. As the MoDem’s failure in the 2007 legislative elections (7.6%, but just 3 seats) showed, the centre cannot exist without alliances with stronger partners. Therefore, of the UDF’s 30 incumbents in 2007, only 6 followed Bayrou in the creation of the MoDem (one of them, Lagarde, left as soon as he was reelected) while 20 created a new party, the New Centre (Nouveau Centre, NC), as a ‘centrist party’ in Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential majority. Allied to the UMP, the NC was able to form its own parliamentary group after the 2007 elections (24 members) – and the NC’s leader, Hervé Morin, served as defence minister between 2007 and 2010. The 2007 split of the centre left it divided between two sides: Bayrou and the MoDem, with the votes but without elected officials; the traditional centre-right within the right, with parliamentarians and cadres but without the votes.

The centre-right within the right has understood that its existence – defined as holding seats in Parliament and local offices – depends on alliances with the stronger mainstream right (UMP/LR). At the same time, it has delusions of grandeur, desperately seeking public attention and trying to hold its weight against the mightier right. One of their dreams has been the recreation of the UDF. However, as noted above, these are cadre parties: with elected officials but without the votes. This being France, the centre-right is further divided among itself by internal rivalries and tendencies towards even greater atomization (one cadre party isn’t enough!). The centre-right within the right lacks any strong, charismatic and well-known leader capable of mounting a strong, independent presidential candidacy. In 2011, Jean-Louis Borloo – president of the Radical Party (which quit the UMP) and environment minister between 2007 and 2010 – seemed to be the centre-right’s best hope for an independent presidential candidacy (he was polling 5-10%), but Borloo is too much of a dilettante to be effective presidential material, and he destroyed all that he had built by announcing that he would not run for president in 2012. The centre-right therefore ended up behind Nicolas Sarkozy by the first round in 2012. After the 2012 legislative elections, NC, Radical and other centre-right deputies (mostly NC dissidents, led by Jean-Christophe Lagarde, in a feud with NC leader Hervé Morin) created the UDI parliamentary group with 29 members (now 27), against 199 for the UMP/LR. Borloo led the creation of the UDI as a party/partisan confederation in the fall of 2012.

The UDI currently includes four parties and four ‘associated structures’. These parties are the Radical Party, The Centrists (Les Centristes) – the recently renamed NC, the European Democratic Force (Force européenne démocrate, FED) and the Modern Left (La Gauche moderne, LGM); the associated structures are even more irrelevant. The Radical Party is currently led by Laurent Hénart, the mayor of Nancy, who replaced Borloo as the party’s president in 2014. Despite its pretensions, the Radicals – the largest party within the UDI by membership (about 6,000 members in 2014) – have declined into obscurity and irrelevance once more. The Centrists, formerly the NC, is still led by Hervé Morin (now regional president of Normandy) and has one of the largest parliamentary bench (about 7 deputies, up to 9 senators) but Morin is an ineffective leader and nobody in the party carries national weight. The FED is the personal micro-party (or, as Colombians would say, microempresa electoral – electoral small business) of the UDI’s president, Jean-Christophe Lagarde, which he founded in 2012 after his personal vendetta with his internal arch-nemesis Hervé Morin and joined by a few other NC dissidents. Lagarde is a somewhat ambitious politician who is mayor of the former ‘red belt’ Communist stronghold of Drancy (Seine-Saint-Denis) since 2001 and deputy of a ‘difficult’ constituency in the Seine-Saint-Denis since 2002. The LGM was created in 2007 by the former ‘Blairite’ PS mayor of Mulhouse (now only senator) Jean-Marie Bockel when he joined the Fillon government in 2007 (as secretary of state for cooperation, later victims and later justice; he left cabinet in 2010); it is the most utterly irrelevant of all UDI structures. It is possible to be a member of the UDI without joining any of its component parties – adhérents directs – as was the case with the old UDF.

Lagarde was elected president of the UDI in 2014, after Borloo’s resignation, winning 53.5% of the vote in the second round of the internal election against Hervé Morin. Over 18,700 members – out of 28,755 eligible – voted in the 2014 internal election. As UDI president, Lagarde confirmed and even deepened the UDI’s alliance with LR, running common lists/candidates in every metropolitan region in the country in the December 2015 regional elections. The UDI and LR sealed an electoral agreement for the June 2017 legislative elections in March 2017, with LR supporting UDI candidates in 92 constituencies.

2016 primary: candidates

The real battle moved to the November 2016 primary for the 2017 election. The organization of a ‘primary of the right and centre’ was historic: in the past, the French right had been cadre parties or effectively personal vehicles under the firm hand of their leaders, their presidential candidates coming naturally with a líder natural (e.g.: Jacques Chirac for the old RPR). The French socialist left has a long history of ‘internal democracy’ (or a semblance of it) and public internal debates (sometimes very damaging for them), the French right has a tradition of strong single leaders imposing their will and ambitions on the party, with rivals being pushed out. The French right has no real tradition of internal democracy, in the form of internal leadership elections (the RPR’s first real leadership election open to its members was in 1999). The PS had held closed presidential primaries in 1995 and 2006, the latter of which – combined with an embarrassing infatuation for Barack Obama – convinced the PS leadership to organize their historic ‘open primary’ in 2011 (open to all registered voters in exchange for a symbolic fee). The PS’ 2011 primary drew over 2.5 million voters in both rounds and was widely hailed as a success. It also gave a burst of momentum to the candidate nominated (Hollande). For 2017, the right wanted to do the same. It needed to deal with Sarkozy’s personal desire to impose himself as the natural candidate of his ‘political family’, as had been the case in 2007 – prior control of the party leadership guaranteeing the presidential nomination. Nevertheless, in April 2015, the right announced that an open primary would be held in November 2016, open to all registered voters in exchange for a €2 contribution per round and signature of a charter of ‘commitment to the republican values of the right and centre’. The primary was opened to LR but also other allied parties – LR’s partidos bisagras like Christine Boutin’s socially conservative Christian Democratic Party (PCD) – but also the centrist confederation, the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI).

Sarkozy’s two main rivals for the LR nomination announced early: Alain Juppé in August 2014 and François Fillon in May 2013. Between 2014 and November 2016, the primary was widely seen as a contest between Juppé and Sarkozy, with the others – Fillon included – playing second fiddle.

Alain Juppé, the incumbent mayor of Bordeaux, is a career politician who has managed to successfully reinvent his political career after a conviction for corruption in 2004. Juppé entered politics in the late 1970s and quickly became one of Jacques Chirac’s closest – and most loyal – allies in the RPR, but also serving him as deputy mayor (adjoint au maire) in Paris (1983-1995), budget minister (1986-1988) or RPR deputy for Paris (1986-1997). He became Prime Minister after Chirac’s election in 1995, but Juppé and Chirac’s popularity collapsed within months of taking office because of the new government’s unpopular policies (pension reform, benefit cuts) and the major strikes and protests they generated. In parallel, Juppé had been elected mayor of Bordeaux in 1995, succeeding longtime Gaullist ‘baron’ Jacques Chaban-Delmas, and his popularity as mayor of Bordeaux – reelections by the first round in 2001, 2008 and 2014, despite the city’s shift to the left in recent elections – has been one of the foundations to his national political career since 2006. Juppé became the first president of the newly-created UMP in 2002, when the party was envisioned as the big tent party of Chirac’s presidential majority, but he was forced to relinquish the party presidency in 2004 following his conviction on appeal to a 14 months suspended sentence and political ineligibility for one year in the ‘fictional jobs’ scandals. The ‘fictional jobs’ (RPR party staff employed on the city’s payroll to perform purely partisan tasks) were part of a corruption system in the Chirac RPR administration in Paris, so Juppé is often seen as Chirac’s fall guy or scapegoat in the scandal. After a brief political hiatus, he returned to active politics in 2006, regaining his seat as mayor of Bordeaux. In 2007, he very briefly became environment minister in the first Fillon government, but he was unexpectedly defeated by a PS candidate in his Gironde constituency in the June 2007 legislative election and so he resigned from cabinet. However, Juppé returned to cabinet in the third Fillon government in November 2010, first as defence minister and then as foreign minister. Both portfolios are usually politically harmless and barring scandals, those holding them remain popular, and so Juppé remained one of the most popular politicians in France.

Juppé led in practically every poll for the right-wing primary, oscillating in the 35-40% range until early November 2016. Although Sarkozy remained popular among LR sympathizers, Juppé attracted the support of the bulk of centrists and leftists who intended to vote in the right’s primary. Juppé received the support of the vast majority of UDI deputies and senators, including that party’s leader, Jean-Christophe Lagarde. Juppé is also close friends with three-time presidential candidate François Bayrou, the mayor of Pau (since 2014) and leader of the Democratic Movement (Mouvement démocrate, MoDem). Bayrou announced that he would not run for president if Juppé was the candidate, but kept the door to a fourth candidacy open if Sarkozy or Fillon was the right’s candidate. Given his far greater appeal to voters in the centre and on the left, Juppé was also, by far, the strongest of all LR candidates in ‘general election’ matchups.

Juppé was perceived as a moderate, pragmatic and consensual candidate – in contrast to the more polarizing, unpopular and right-wing Sarkozy – and conveniently forgetting his fairly right-wing beginnings in the RPR of the 1980s. Juppé’s past corrupt transgressions are forgotten and/or forgiven by most – or, in any case, too distant in collective memory to be overly important. His Achilles’ heel in the right-wing primary was his self-styled moderate image, somewhat in dissonance with the broadly conservative orientation of primary voters. Far-right conspiratorial circles online spread claims of his ‘complacency’ with Islamists, while Sarkozy and others mocked his idea of “happy identity” (identité heureuse) and his preference for integration over assimilation. Still, Juppé’s moderation was more a matter of style and variable emphasis than major policy differences with his right-wing competitors. His had ‘generic’ right-wing stances on economic issues – spending cuts, corporate and income tax cuts, abolishing the wealth tax (ISF), cutting 300,000 public sector jobs, reducing payroll taxes, scrapping the 35 hours. Even on immigration, an issue where he seemed to diverge the most from the rest of the field, his actual policy proposals were not out of line with general right-wing thinking (immigration ceiling or quotas, minimal residence requirements on foreign parents of children born in France, restricting state medical aid for illegals, ‘strongly limit’ family reunification). Differences were on the details and style, Juppé being less populist than Sarkozy, with a more consensual tone on issues like immigration or the EU.

Nicolas Sarkozy was widely expected to run, but he chose to officially announce his candidacy in late August 2016, only a few days before the window for candidacy declarations closed. He likely aimed for an old-style short but intensive campaign, quickly wrapping up the candidacy. He trailed Juppé in nearly every poll, although he was second in every one of them, but he retained a fairly strong base among LR sympathizers. Like in 2012, Sarkozy focused his campaign on hot-button issues like immigration, security/crime and Islam. He struck a far more populist tone than the cautious and conciliatory Juppé: he again threatened to scrap Schengen if a new treaty wasn’t renegotiated to reinforce controls at the EU’s borders, vowed to stop economic immigration and promised to hold a series of referendums on issues like reducing the size of Parliament, restricting family reunification or detention of terrorism suspects. If Sarkozy retained a strong base of supporters within his own party – and his strategy was to stir up the LR core electorate, to overpower the centrists and leftists who came to vote in ‘our primary’ – he remained very unpopular among the general public, with over 60% having an unfavourable opinion of the former president. Therefore, he performed poorly in ‘general election’ matchups, particularly in comparison to Juppé, because he lacked Juppé’s seamless appeal to centrists and fledgling soft leftists.

François Fillon followed the opposite strategy: he decided early on to focus all his energy on the 2017 election rather than any intermediary internal leadership battles, and he announced his candidacy before everyone else, in May 2013. This seemed like a risky strategy with little pay off in sight: he remained a poor third or fourth in most polls (10-15%) until November 2016. Very much overshadowed by the Juppé-Sarkozy contest, he was not visible in the media.

Fillon is a career politician, although one who has rarely been on the winning side of internal party disputes on the right. He first became a deputy at 27, in 1981, as the heir of his earliest political mentor, RPR deputy for the Sarthe Joël Le Theule (transportation and later defence minister from 1978 to 1980), after his sudden death in 1980. Inheriting Le Theule’s local power-base, he also succeeded him as mayor and general councillor of Sablé-sur-Sarthe, the department’s third largest municipality located in the western half of the department, serving as mayor until 2001 and general councillor until 1998 (including six years, 1992-1998, as president of the general council of the Sarthe). He was reelected six successive times in his constituency, winning by the first round in each case except in 1997 – a rather impressive record, given that his constituency wasn’t a natural right-wing stronghold in the first place.

In the RPR politics of the 1980s, Fillon was an ally of Philippe Séguin, the main figure of so-called “social Gaullism” (gaullisme social) within the party – an ideological label which was mostly just that, a label, but which was seen as embodying some kind of instinctive Euroscepticism, vague traditional/orthodox Gaullist statism as opposed to economic liberalism and an even vaguer ‘concern’ for social justice and inequalities (Séguin inspired Chirac’s famous 1995 focus on la fracture sociale). Given that positioning, Fillon was never close to Chirac and was something of an irksome maverick in the RPR – he was, for example, alongside Séguin and some other now-famous names (Dominique Baudis, Philippe de Villiers, François Bayrou, Michel Barnier), one of the members of the rénovateurs (renovators) of the right: 12 ‘young Turks’ RPR and UDF deputies opposed to the ‘old guard’ of their parties (i.e. Chirac and Giscard). The episode of the rénovateurs has become a footnote in French political history, as they failed to have a lasting impact because of their disparate natures and typical political calculations. At any rate, Fillon remained with Séguin, part of the Séguin-Pasqua duo which challenged the Chirac-Juppé establishment at the Bourget in 1990 and opposed Maastricht with Séguin in 1992 (Fillon now uses his opposition to Maastricht as some kind of master proof that he was right about Europe all along, omitting to mention that he supported the EU Constitution in 2005, Lisbon in 2007 etc.), but unlike Séguin he supported Balladur over Chirac in 1995. Fillon had become minister of higher education in 1993; unlike Sarkozy, who was actively implicated with the Balladur ‘betrayal’ of 1995, Fillon was one of the few Balladur supporters still palatable enough to Chirac post-election and allowed to remain in cabinet, although in the basement portfolio of junior minister for posts and telecommunications.

After the 1997 defeat, Séguin became president of the RPR in implicit opposition to Juppé-Chirac, and Fillon entered the party leadership as secretary-general, while also cementing his regional base by becoming regional president of the Pays-de-la-Loire in 1998. In 1999, Fillon ran for the presidency of the RPR – the first (and only) time that members directly elected their leader – as the séguiniste/’social Gaullist’ candidate and placed third, with 25%. Fillon got closer to Chirac, and worked on the re-election campaign and creation of the UMP, and became minister of social affairs in Raffarin’s government after the election.

As minister of social affairs, Fillon is most famous for his 2003 pensions reform (Fillon law) – which really only was extending a 1993 reform to the public sector pensions system, but because this is France, many people had a meltdown. He also toyed around with 35 hour workweek and various youth employment schemes a bit. In this gig, he gained a reputation as a no-nonsense, serious, focused and somewhat gutsy politician: this style didn’t jive well with the Chirac/Raffarin tandem, which was usually scared of doing anything which might offend somebody and generally chose to retreat rather than face drawn-out protests and opposition. Chirac tried to use Fillon and play him off against Sarkozy, until Fillon realized that he was being used and became increasingly impatient with Chirac. His impatience and frustration with Chirac only increased after the 2004 regional elections debacle, in which Fillon himself was defeated by the left in his own region of – despite that region being seen, up until that time, as an impregnable right-wing bastion. In the post-regionals shuffle, Fillon became education minister, and was behind another Fillon law (2005) about high school and curriculum or something, which again was controversial.

Fillon was fired without much decorum from Dominique de Villepin’s new cabinet, after the 2005 referendum, being bluntly informed by Chirac that there was no room for him. Fillon’s frustration turned into open hatred for Chirac, and he quipped that nobody would remember anything from Chirac’s presidency besides his own reforms. He became a close supporter of Nicolas Sarkozy, and was seen as the frontrunner for Matignon after Sarkozy’s victory. In the first years of Sarkozy’s presidency, when Sarkozy was the “hyper president”, visible everywhere and stepping on the prime minister’s flowerbed, Fillon sulked and privately resented his demotion to “collaborator” – Sarkozy’s infamous 2007 reference to Fillon’s role. On the plus side for him, Sarkozy quickly became very unpopular, while Fillon remained significantly more popular than Sarkozy – with 35 – 40% approval ratings, sometimes 10 points better than Sarkozy’s numbers – something which isn’t the normal order of things in French politics, going by the old playbook. In 2010, there were wild rumours flying around that Sarkozy was considering replacing Fillon as prime minister, with Jean-Louis Borloo being the apparent favourite to replace him. In the end, after the 2010 regionals, Fillon was kept but the cabinet was significantly changed. In 2012, Fillon ‘abandoned’ his old powerbase in the Sarthe and was elected to the National Assembly from a downtown Paris constituency, which fed some speculation that he would run for mayor of the capital in 2014.

Evaluating Fillon’s appeal is complicated. Up until 2017, his image was that of a serious, measured, responsible and honest man – but also cold, introverted, uncharismatic and rather morose (his penchant for preaching doom and gloom). In other words, not a politician who arouses passions and enthusiasm (like Sarkozy), but also not a politician who evokes much instinctive dislike or hatred from others. Even on the right, many had reservations about Juppé (too moderate, old guard) or Sarkozy (corruption scandals), but very few had any negative feelings about Fillon: he seemed like a respectable man, and also a solid conservative to boot (with thought-out policy proposals). He was, in a way, everybody’s second choice: polls showed that both Juppé and Sarkozy’s supporters had him as their second choice. Fillon had the most economically (neo)liberal platform of the major candidates, widely presented as a ‘Thatcherite’ or ‘shock therapy’ platform to cut spending (by a big round €100 billion), cut income taxes, raise the VAT, cut the public sector payroll by 500,000 and liberalize labour laws. Fillon is also a practicing Catholic and social conservative, something which matters a lot in a right-wing primary where churchgoing Catholic conservatives are a major high-turnout voting block. Fillon remained down in the polls until the debates – three debates were held on October 13, November 3 and November 17 before the November 20 first round – in which Fillon performed unexpectedly well, emerging as the surprise winner and the new phenomenon of the primaries. He gained ground very quickly in the polls: 11-12% in mid-October, 20-22% in mid-November and a last minute surge into contention in the last three polls before the first round: tied for second with Sarkozy at 25% (OpinionWay, Nov. 13-15), three-way statistical tie at 27% (Ifop, Nov. 10-17) and a one-point lead at 30% (Ipsos, Nov. 18).

Besides the top three, there were four other candidates in the primary. Another six candidates had not received the required number of endorsements from members and elected officials, and two had dropped out in 2015. The other candidates were Bruno Le Maire (deputy from the Eure, former agriculture minister 2009-2012), Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (deputy from the Essonne, former environment minister 2010-2012), Jean-François Copé (deputy from the Seine-et-Marne and mayor of Meaux) and Jean-Frédéric Poisson (leader of the PCD and deputy for the Yvelines).

Bruno Le Maire is young, ambitious and somewhat reformist; his youthful image and reformist outlook served him well in the 2014 UMP leadership race, where he placed a surprisingly strong second behind the obvious winner Sarkozy (nearly 30%). His 2014 leadership bid was obviously a way for him to get his name out there before 2017. He was in third or fourth place, with about 10-15%, in most polls in 2016, but he was unable to find the moment to break through. His problem was that he failed to stand out from the rest of the field, lacking any clear defining characteristic – Juppé the experienced and reassuring moderate, Sarkozy the former president appealing to the right or Fillon the serious conservative. Le Maire likely had the most thoroughly fleshed-out platform – it was over 1,000 pages long! – but nobody would ever read that nor did he summarize it well, and few of his ideas stood out to capture attention (it was a fairly generic, if somewhat more moderate, right-wing platform).

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (NKM) is also young, ambitious (but somewhat snobbish) and reformist, and also holds a grudge against Sarkozy for dumping her from the LR leadership in 2015. NKM is something of a ‘green liberal’ and she was the most moderate and socially liberal of all candidates (she abstained on gay marriage and opposed the Manif pour tous), seeking to be the ‘modern’ candidate (‘uberization of the economy’ and other vacuous stuff about ‘technologies!’ ‘the digital age!’ ‘the power of social media!’). NKM never polled more than 3-4%.

Jean-François Copé was the surprise candidate, attempting to get his name back in the media and begin his political comeback after the Bygmalion affair forced him out of the limelight in 2014. Copé, unlike Sarkozy, was ultimately not indicted in the scandal, giving weight and credibility to his constant claims of innocence (and alleged victimization). Besides seeking media attention, his candidacy was his way to piss off and annoy Sarkozy (who he now dislikes for throwing him under the bus in Bygmalion). Like in 2012 and during his short leadership of the UMP, Copé was on the right of the field and tried to get attention by proposing rapid fire reforms through ‘15 immediate ordinances‘.

Jean-Frédéric Poisson was the only candidate not from LR: he is the president of the Christian Democratic Party (PCD), a small very socially conservative party founded by Christine Boutin, a politician famously obsessed with ‘defending the family’ and anti-gay marriage hysteria. Poisson ran to get some visibility for his party and to put some social conservative pressure on LR’s eventual candidate (Poisson pressed for the full repeal of same-sex marriage and adoption). He was the most right-wing candidate, openly admitting his sympathies for Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (FN) and endorsing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton (who he controversially said was ‘close’ to Wall Street financiers and ‘Zionist lobbies’).

2016 primary: results

Fillon unexpectedly won the first round of the primaries, placing far ahead of the other candidates with 44.08% of the vote. Juppé placed second with 28.56%, while Sarkozy was unexpectedly eliminated by the first round, placing third with only 20.67%. The four remaining candidates got embarrassingly low results: NKM (2.56%), Le Maire (2.38%), Poisson (1.45%) and – most hilariously of all – Copé (0.3%).

Fillon had a massive spurt of momentum in the last week, which got even stronger by the end, and in a party primary where the candidates differ more in style and personality than in actual ideology, a lot of fledgling voters from all sides opted to go with the ‘winner’. Juppé didn’t underperform his final polling numbers too much, but Sarkozy (and the minor candidates, especially Le Maire) suffered the most from Fillon’s last minute momentum – fledgling sarkozystes who saw in Fillon an electable, solidly conservative candidate (or a candidate to ‘block’ Juppé). Fillon was also a natural fit for the LR core electorate – who made up a majority of primary voters – because of his conservative and Catholic credentials, in addition to being, as aforementioned, generally inoffensive and benefiting from a positive image (serious, responsible). These voters likely still liked Sarkozy quite a lot, but a good number of them probably realized that he was a weak candidate and had no reservations in moving over to Fillon when he surged. The ‘minor candidates’ were, unsurprisingly, squeezed by the usual vote utile (‘useful vote’) for a major candidate. According to OpinionWay, Fillon (48%) and Sarkozy (31%) were the favourites of LR sympathziers, with only 18.5% for Juppé; Juppé was propelled into the hopeless runoff thanks to the support from left-wing and centrist participants, winning 58% and 46% of the vote with them (Fillon did quite well, nevertheless, with centrists – 45% and even leftists – 29%, unlike Sarkozy). 41% of the primary voters were LR sympathizers; 15% were centrists, 12% were from the left, 10% were from the FN and the rest declared no partisan sympathies.

In geographic terms, both Fillon and Juppé’s support had clear favourite son bases: Fillon got 78.3% in the Sarthe, his native department, and that effect resonated in neighbouring departments: Mayenne (63.6%), Maine-et-Loire (56.3%), Orne (54.9%) but also in Loire-Atlantique (54.1%), Vendée (56.3%) and the rest of Brittany (48-50%). Alain Juppé’s best department was, obviously, Gironde (55.3%) and he seems to have won comfortably over 60% in Bordeaux. Outside of his and Juppé’s native regions, it was striking how Fillon’s support was rather evenly distributed in metro France: it really goes to show how Fillon’s surge picked up everybody, with no major regional differences, and how Fillon ended up a good fit for most primary voters.

In the Paris region, Juppé performed best in the most left-wing parts of the capital and its suburbs: eastern Paris, Seine-Saint-Denis (where turnout was, however, unsurprisingly low) and the old working-class Red Belt banlieue of the Hauts-de-Seine and Val-de-Marne, showing that – although left-wing turnout in the right-wing primary was very low – Juppé attracted significant crossover support from left-wing voters (see a map of Juppé’s support here). On the other hand, Fillon had particularly strong support among devout, churchgoing Catholics – an important high-turnout right-wing base. An Ifop study found that 59% of churchgoing LR-sympathizing Catholics voted for Fillon against 27% for Sarkozy and 11% for Juppé. Among socially conservative religious Catholics, Fillon took a lot of potential votes away from Jean-Frédéric Poisson, the PCD candidate theoretically closest to the hardline religious socially conservative electorate. Fillon did very well with wealthy voters. It was very apparent in the Paris region, with Fillon breaking 50% in the wealthiest areas of Paris, Hauts-de-Seine and Yvelines. The wealth effect also showed up very clearly in and around Lyon, Annecy, Lille, Marseille, Biarritz (the only reason he won Pyrénées-Atlantiques), Nantes, the Gulf of Morbihan, Rouen, Rennes and Toulouse. What is striking about the vote in wealthy conservative regions is how Sarkozy was destroyed in these areas, even in his own traditional political base of Neuilly-sur-Seine (the wealthiest commune in France) in the Hauts-de-Seine – he won just about 20% in Neuilly and only 15% in the department. Sarkozy’s collapse in wealthy areas was also clear in Paris (13.7%), Yvelines (14.3%), Rhône (18.6%) and Bas-Rhin (20%). Instead, Sarkozy’s map was reminiscent of a FN map – but the FN maps from the 1980s or early 1990s, with the exception of Alsace and the Paris metro. Like the early FN, his support had a clear Mediterranean focus, with strong support in the conservative inner east as well (Aube, Haute-Marne). Sarkozy, ‘ideologically’, was basically what Jean-Marie Le Pen was in the 1980s – pretty generically right-wing on economic issues with an heavy focus on identity, immigration and Islam-related issues.

Estimated % turnout in the LR primary, R1

The first round was also a massive success for the right as a whole: a record turnout of 4,298,000 – far more than the left’s 2.66 million voters in 2011 (first round) and even mobilizing beyond the right’s core electorate (the 3.9 million votes for the UMP in the low-turnout 2014 EP election). Turnout was 9.5% (R1) – 9.7% (R2) of 2015 registered voters (a bit less if you use 2017 numbers). First round turnout was clearly strongest in affluent urban areas, the highest in Paris (21%), Hauts-de-Seine (20.5%) and Yvelines (17.1%). Outside the Parisian region, the largely urbanized and/or affluent right-wing departments of Alpes-Maritimes (14.7%), Rhone (13%), Gironde (12.6%), Haute-Savoie (11.5%), Savoie (10%) and Loire-Atlantique (10%) had high turnout. The lowest turnouts in metro France came from departments which are either rather left-wing (Ariège, 4.5%; Creuse, 5.7%; Seine-Saint-Denis, 5.8%; Haute-Vienne, 6.6%) or FN strongholds where the FN base is demographically dissimilar to the right-wing electorate (Pas-de-Calais, 4.8%; Somme, 6%; Aisne, 5.4%; Haute-Marne, 5.4%). A lot of the low turnout departments are also sparsely populated and rural-ish, where access to a polling station was more difficult, whereas in densely packed urban regions like Paris it was much easier to find an easily accessible polling station. The polling stations were also concentrated on the basis of the right’s past support in elections.

Of the eliminated candidates, only NKM and Copé endorsed Juppé, while all others – led by Sarkozy – endorsed Fillon.

Combined with his own impregnable first round advantage, Fillon’s victory in the second round was a mere formality. On November 27, Fillon won 66.49% of the runoff vote against 33.51% for Juppé. Among only LR sympathizers, Fillon won 85-15. Despite the low stakes, turnout was even higher: 4.4 million voters participated, confirming the incredible success of the first round.

Juppé won only two departments in metro France: the favourite son base of Gironde (62%) and the old chiraquien (and hollandais) stronghold of Corrèze (51%); he also won French Guiana, Wallis-et-Futuna and French Polynesia.

The right emerged from their primaries relatively united and with a positive media narrative (success of the primaries). Fillon seemed to be a solid candidate, despite the unpopularity of certain aspects of his economic platform. He received a post-primary surge in the polls, polling up to 30% (and first place) in some polls immediately after his primary victory, although the first hiccups regarding his proposals on social security (extremely unpopular hints of privatizing or ‘two-tiered’ social security) set him on a dangerous downwards tracks (around 25% in the polls in January).

François Fillon’s platform

François Fillon’s presidential platform was firmly right-wing on all fronts, from the economy to immigration. He presented it as a set of gutsy ‘urgent measures’ which needed to be taken to fix France’s problems (first and foremost unemployment); his opponents painted it as Thatcherite shock therapy which would destroy France’s ‘social model’. Fillon promised to reduce non-wage labour costs on businesses by €40 billion by further reducing payroll taxes and other social contributions and cutting the corporate tax rate to 25%. Going further than the El Khomri law, he proposed a complete overhaul of the labour regulations framework, notably by scrapping the legal 35 hour workweek to let individual businesses decide through collective bargaining (with a ‘reference’ duration of 39 hours otherwise and in the public sector). To incite jobseekers to accept employment offers, unemployment allowances would be reduced over time and refusing repeated job offers without good cause would be sanctioned. He argued that yet another pension reform was necessary, raising the legal retirement age to 65 and continuing the harmonization of public and private section pension schemes, but with minor sweeteners (increasing base pensions by €300 for those with a pension of less than €1,000). A major point of emphasis was boosting and supporting SMEs and entrepreneurship, particularly for and by young people and in high tech fields (make France a ‘startup nation’), through various fiscal benefits and general liberalization of existing rules and norms. His promises to ‘debureaucratize’ structures extended to education as well, where he proposed to gradually give more autonomy to individual schools and universities, reduce central bureaucracy over education and focus on teaching the fundamentals and instilling respect for authority (school uniforms, disciplinary evaluations). On healthcare, Fillon was forced to backtrack from original proposals which reeked of social security privatization (certain procedures would no longer be refunded but could be covered by private insurers). France’s public healthcare and social security system remain very popular and politicians rarely dare propose major reforms to it, for fear of popular backlash. So Fillon proposed convoluted measures to give more freedom to medical professionals, to balance the healthcare system’s budget by 2022 and a ‘full refund of the most costly healthcare costs’ by 2022. He also proposed liberalization in housing, by abolishing rent controls (introduced by the left’s poorly crafted Duflot law of 2013), reducing state intervention in housing and reducing the constraints on housing investments.

For the public sector and public finances, he proposed austerity – cutting 500,000 public sector jobs over 5 years, through mainly through attrition, and €100 billion in spending cuts over 5 years to balance the budget and reduce the size of government (‘reducing the weight of the public sector to bring it in line with comparable countries’). Progressively, as spending would be cut, Fillon would cut taxes – payroll taxes for employees, raising the basic family tax allowance (income tax cut), abolishing the wealth tax – but the VAT standard rate would be raised by 2%. Critical of France’s complicated and sometimes controversial system of social benefits, which the right typically claims favours dependency and discourages work, Fillon proposed to group several social allowances and benefits into a single, unique benefit which would be capped so that labour income is always higher (and with workfare-like requirements on beneficiaries).

In short, Fillon’s economic platform – which he intended to make the centrepiece of his entire campaign – was unusually (neo)liberal by French standards – although what is more unusual is less the content (Reagan/Thatcher-like policies were tried out by the Chirac government of 1986-1988) but that these policies were part of a candidate’s explicit promises (French politicians usually prefer dumping the austerity as as nasty post-electoral surprise). The French right’s economic philosophy, particularly that of modern so-called Gaullism (RPR/UMP), has been eclectic, imbued with lingering statism trying to find its place alongside more ‘typical’ economic liberalism.

Fillon had conservative (‘law and order’) stances on immigration, security and crime. He pledged to hire 5,000 new law enforcement personnel and redeploy another 5,000 of them on the field, open 16,000 new prison places, ‘zero tolerance’ crackdowns on minor daily offences, reintroduce mandatory sentencing for repeat offenders and minimum sentences for serious crimes and offences, delay conditional release until three-quarters of a sentence has been served and reduce the age of legal responsibility to 16. He proposed to ban all French nationals, who would also lose their citizenship, from returning home after fighting in a terrorist organization abroad and expelling foreign terrorist suspects. Overall, spending on defence, intelligence, law enforcement and justice would be increased. Fillon promised to ‘reduce legal immigration to its strict minimum’ by creating immigration quotas and restricting family immigration. Family allowances and housing benefits would only be paid out to those who have resided in France for at least two years, and State Medical Aid (Aide médicale d’État – health coverage for foreigners including illegals) abolished. Illegal immigrants would be systematically detained and deported. Fillon promised to “restore migratory sovereignty” by renegotiating Schengen and other EU directives to allow targeted controls at internal borders. Finally, he proposed to toughen naturalization requirements – increasing residency requirements (8 years, 5 years for partners of French citizens) and condition the acquisition of citizenship to certain requirements (schooling, no criminal convictions etc.).

The EU has been a difficult issue for the right in recent years, needing to balance their own record in favour of EU integration (and the pro-European traditions of certain ‘families’ of the French right, like the Christian democrats or some right-liberals) with their electorate’s growing opposition to certain aspects of EU integration (and keep them from flirting with the Eurosceptic right or the FN). In recent years, particularly in opposition, the UMP-LR has ‘huffed and puffed’ about reviewing or limiting EU powers on certain things (mostly immigration, the posted workers directive or free trade/TTIP) while remaining supportive of closer Eurozone governance (but steadfastly opposed to Turkish membership). In the current context, Fillon’s ‘pro-Russian’ views – beginning talks to lift sanctions on Russia – aroused controversy.

The Fillon scandal – Penelopegate

On January 25, 2017, the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné reported that Fillon’s wife Penelope Fillon had received €500,000 as her husband’s parliamentary assistant between 1998 and 2002 and in 2012, as well as for Fillon’s substitute Marc Joulaud between 2002 and 2007. A week later, new evidence that she would also have been employed as his parliamentary assistant in 1988-1990 and in 2013 led to an increased estimate of the gross salary she received: €831,440. In addition, she also received €100,000 as a literary adviser for the magazine Revue des deux Mondes between May 2012 and December 2013. The magazine is owned by Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, a billionaire friend of Fillon. In both cases, the newspaper had been unable to find evidence that she had completed any substantial work. Later, a new controversy arose about Penelope Fillon’s rather exorbitant €45,000 severance payments in 2002 and 2013. Fillon contested the numbers given by the Canard, which later recognized that it had been wrong on the numbers (the actual sum was much less).

Fillon himself disclosed that he had employed two of his children while he was a senator (2005-2007), with Le Canard later finding that the two had gotten nearly €84,000 for their jobs – again with doubts being raised about actual work performed (or their qualifications for the job). In March, investigators discovered suspicious wire transfers made by the two children to Fillon and his wife’s joint account.

Employing a spouse or relative as one’s parliamentary assistant is not illegal in France, and hoping to contain the nascent scandal, Fillon ‘clarified’ that Penelope Fillon had been employed as a parliamentary assistant for 15 years (1986-2013) and, overall, was paid €680,380 net. Later media investigations by Le Canard and Mediapart found that her public employment may have begun even earlier, in 1980 or 1982. Fillon was adamant that his wife had performed actual work and began decrying a witch hunt, ‘media lynching’ and political persecution against him by the left (or leftist judges). However, the inconsistencies and vagueness in Fillon and his surrogates’ defence of Penelope’s employment, as well as contradictory past statements and media reports raised serious questions about whether Penelope actually did any work (or if instead she was yet another beneficiary of a ‘fictitious job’). For example, in a 2007 interview with a British newspaper, she said “I never have been actually his assistant”.

On January 26 on TF1, Fillon pledged that he would withdraw from the race if he was personally placed under judicial investigation (mis en examen). The national financial prosecutor (PNF) had opened a preliminary investigation for embezzlement and misuse of public funds on January 25. On February 16, as it was made clear that the PNF had sufficient information to continue its investigation, Fillon revised his pledge – he would not withdraw from the race, even if placed under investigation. A formal judicial inquiry (information judiciaire) was opened on February 24 for embezzlement, misuse of public funds, influence peddling and failure to comply with legal disclosure requirements against unnamed individuals (to allow an expansion of the investigation to other suspects if necessary. On March 1, Fillon was informed that he was to appear before the judges and likely to be placed under formal investigation. On March 14, Fillon was placed under judicial investigation (mis en examen) for embezzlement, misuse of public funds and failure to comply with legal disclosure requirements; Marc Joulaud, Penelope Fillon and Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière were all later placed under judicial investigation.

After the initial Penelopegate, the hits came coming against Fillon. On March 8, the Canard struck again, reporting that in 2013 Fillon had received an undeclared €50,000 interest-free loan from his friend Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière. Fillon would have paid back this loan sometime in February 2017. On March 12, Le Journal du dimanche revealed that Fillon had received expensive suits, pullovers, blazers and paints valued at €48,500 as ‘anonymous’ gifts (including from Robert Bourgi, a right-wing political consultant notorious for his Françafrique connections and shadowy influence). Fillon returned the suits after the story broke. Questions were also raised about potential influence peddling related to a consulting firm Fillon had created in 2012. Mediapart found that the firm’s clients included Fouad Makhzoumi, a Lebanese businessman who wanted Fillon to organize a meeting with Vladimir Putin and the CEO of French oil giant Total.

Very early on, Fillon and his campaign claimed that the scandal was a political conspiracy orchestrated by the Socialist government – planted, informed and directed by the presidency and its hazy backrooms (officines). During his March 23 appearance on France 2’s high-audience political program L’Émission politique, Fillon directly accused Hollande of being behind the scandal. The right substantiated its accusations on the basis of a new book by three journalists, Bienvenue place Beauvau, which alleged the existence of a secret cabinet noir in the Élysée created to destabilize Hollande’s political opponents by monitoring certain politicians and feeding corruption stories to the judiciary and the press. Hollande immediately denied the existence of a cabinet noir, and the book’s authors added that the Fillon scandal didn’t come from the alleged cabinet noir as the right had been claiming. Nevertheless, Fillon persisted in his conspiratorial claims and somewhat Berlusconian attacks, later claiming that the documents accessed by the Canard‘s journalists had been provided by a ‘service of the state’, an allegation which the newspaper considered grotesque. The right’s strategy was classic diversion, or “creating a scandal in the scandal when you’re in shit” as the late Charles Pasqua advised. Later, in April, Fillon began refusing to talk about the scandal or answer any questions about it. He became increasingly curt with journalists and doubled down on conspiratorial theories and claims of victimhood (considering the scandal to be slanderous calumnies against him or that he was victim of media lynching).

The scandal quickly weakened and destabilized Fillon’s campaign and divided the right. The media and several LR and UDI politicians soon began calling into question Fillon’s candidacy, with the option of Alain Juppé as the ‘replacement candidate’. LR deputy Georges Fenech, a sarkozyste, was the first to challenge Fillon’s candidacy on February 1, saying that the result of the primary was obsolete and calling on the right to change its candidate. On February 13, Fenech and 16 other LR parliamentarians (Nadine Morano, Claude Goasguen, Sébastien Huyghe etc.) met and on Fillon to ‘take his responsibilities’ (i.e. withdraw). Juppé considered the possibility of replacing Fillon, under certain conditions and only with Fillon’s agreement – which was near-impossible, given that Fillon quickly made clear that he intended to stay in until the end, whatever the cost and whatever came on him. Juppé was always reticent on the possibility, likely realizing that it would be difficult for him (who lost the primary) to replace a candidate who retained substantial base support and to ensure the support of the entirety of LR and UDI’s leaders. Some right-wingers became urging elected officials to give their endorsements (for the 500 signatures) to Juppé, others began speculating on the possibility of having the election postponed. The constitution allows the Constitutional Council to postpone the election if, before the first round, a candidate dies or ‘is prevented’ (se trouve empêché) from running.

On March 1, when it was announced that Fillon would be placed under formal judicial investigation within 15 days – a period which coincided with the window during which elected officials handed in their endorsements (deadline was March 17) – the bottom seemingly fell out from his campaign. Libération counted, at its maximum, 306 LR and UDI elected officials calling on Fillon to withdraw his candidacy (after a few changed their minds, the ‘tracker’ fell to 296). Members of Fillon’s campaign team (who hadn’t initially supported him in the primary) resigned their posts: Bruno Le Maire, Thierry Solère, Gilles Boyer, Dominique Bussereau and campaign manager Patrick Stefanini. A pro-Fillon youth group, Les jeunes avec Fillon, called on Fillon to withdraw. The UDI, led by Jean-Christophe Lagarde (who had backed Juppé in the primary), suspended its participation in the campaign. The list of LR-UDI politicians who pushed on Fillon to withdraw included heavy-weights like Christian Estrosi (then-regional president of PACA), Bruno Le Maire, Franck Riester, Yves Jégo, Arnaud Robinet (mayor of Reims), Brigitte Fouré (UDI mayor of Amiens), Fabienne Keller (former mayor of Strasbourg and senator), Édouard Philippe (mayor of Le Havre), Christophe Béchu (mayor of Angers), Benoist Apparu, Laurent Hénart (UDI mayor of Nancy), Valérie Létard, Laurent Marcangeli (mayor of Ajaccio), Alain Lamassoure, Pierre Lellouche, Catherine Vautrin (president of Reims metro), Jean Rottner (mayor of Mulhouse), Gérald Darmanin (mayor of Tourcoing), Philippe Richert (president of the Grand Est region) and Nadine Morano among others. Fillon’s candidacy seemed to be on the rocks.

Estrosi tried to have Juppé take over as replacement candidate, and was joined by fellow LR regional presidents Xavier Bertrand and Valérie Pécresse. In any case, Fillon’s opponents in LR-UDI had less than 17 days to have Fillon drop out, replace him with Juppé (or someone else) and ensure that the replacement candidate could get 500 signatures in such a short time frame: mission impossible. Fillon defended by his filloniste ‘hard core’ – by Bruno Retailleau (senator-regional president of Pays-de-la-Loire), Valérie Boyer (Bouches-du-Rhône deputy) and Jérôme Chartier (Val-d’Oise deputy) – obstinately refused to consider withdrawing and served to block any attempts at replacing him with Juppé or someone else. The sarkozystes didn’t want Juppé, the juppéistes didn’t want a sarkozyste like François Baroin (senator-mayor of Troyes), the forty-something ambitious leaders didn’t want another one of them skipping the line to be candidate. Fillon needed to keep his campaign together and resist until the signature deadline (March 17) to stay in. As a show of force to internal critics and the general public, Fillon’s campaign organized a mass rally at the Trocadéro (Paris) on March 5. His campaign claimed a massive crowd of 200,000 people (impossible to fill a place the area of the Trocadéro with that many people); police sources estimated 35,000-45,000; regardless, Fillon’s Trocadéro was a success – his right-wing, socially conservative (and retired) base showed up, rallied around their embattled candidate and Fillon hit back against the ‘deserters’ on the right. That same evening, invited to the nightly news on France 2, Fillon said that nobody could prevent him from being a candidate – and that the decision wasn’t up to the party. On March 6, Juppé ended speculation by confirming that he would not be a candidate, but criticized Fillon’s obstinacy and conspiratorial discourse (led him to a dead end he said) and the ‘radicalization’ of the ‘core’ of LR sympathizers. Nevertheless, Juppé got 313 signatures – Fillon got 3,635, including – ironically – that of Georges Fenech, the rogue LR deputy who had previously called on people to sign for Juppé and later Baroin. According to an analysis by Ifop, only 60% of the LR deputies who supported Juppé in the primary signed for Fillon, compared to 92% of Fillon endorsers and 85% of Sarkozy endorsers. Juppéiste deputies Marc Laffineur (LR) and Michel Piron (UDI), as well as lemairiste deputy Franck Riester (LR) signed for Juppé.

With Fillon’s successful Trocadéro rally, his obvious refusal to withdraw his candidacy and Juppé ruling himself out as the ‘plan B’, Fillon’s candidacy was saved and some of those who, just a few days before, had called on him to withdraw from the race did an about-face. Estrosi, Bertrand and Pécresse – who had tried to convince Fillon to drop out – now changed their mind and rallied behind Fillon, in the name of the necessary ‘unity of the right and the centre’. The UDI, which had suspended its participation in the campaign, returned behind Fillon, their mind set on their agreement with LR for the legislative elections (which is what really matters to the UDI). Fillon shuffled his campaign team, promoting former sarkozystes who had stuck with him to new positions: François Baroin, Éric Ciotti (president of the Alpes-Maritimes departmental council and deputy) and Luc Chatel (Haute-Marne deputy).

Immediately after Penelopegate broke, Fillon fell into third place, generally stabilizing at 18-20% for most of the remainder of the campaign. The damage had been done…

next chapter: Parties, Candidates, Issues and Campaigns – The PS/EELV, B. Hamon >

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