And now for the second French revolution

En avant! Fillon as Napoleon, with apologies to David who made the original painting.

Francois Fillon, a latter-day Thatcherite, has trounced his rivals and is favourite to become president of France. He vows to slash state spending and launch an economic revolution.

For a man once nicknamed ‘Mr Nobody’, it was a stunning victory.

On Sunday, François Fillon won the primary for France’s Republican party, crushing the favourite Alain Juppé. Fillon will represent the party in next year’s presidential election. This time, he will be the man to beat.

The Fillon upset is all the more remarkable because of what he stands for. The Catholic father of five embraces traditional family values and rejects multiculturalism. His aversion to gay rights, hard line on Islam and constant talk of ‘French values’ has pleased some and horrified others.

But it is the candidate’s economic policies that are hogging the headlines. The country is heavily in debt and struggling with high unemployment. Fillon’s remedy? To smash the powerful unions, slash taxes and welfare spending, end the 35-hour week, and fire half a million civil servants. These measures, he argues, will save costs and allow businesses to thrive. His critics reply that they will widen social inequality.

Fillon’s combination of social conservatism and economic liberalism is a novelty in France. It has invited comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister. Indeed, Fillon admires her radical approach. ‘France needs a shock,’ he says.

The man certainly has a wild streak. As a boy, he was suspended from school for leading a protest against an ‘incompetent’ teacher. As a teen, he stole his parents’ car, then crashed it. As an adult, he enjoys motor racing and bullfights.

Yet as a politician, he has been moderate. When prime minister, he was not known as a reformer. For most of his 35-year career he has been associated with Gaullism, a movement that mixes conservative values with a belief in public spending.

Fillon claims that his shift to the right is the result of three years spent talking with ordinary citizens. They rewarded him on Sunday. But winning a national election is a different matter. Is France ready for his revolution?

Plus ça change

No, say some. Comparisons with Thatcher are wrong: Britain was worse off when she came into power than France is now. And the French are different to the British: they place more value on social égalité and less on economic freedom. Their country may be doing badly, but not badly enough for a radical shake-up. Fillon will have to change his message soon – or lose.

Think again, reply others. The current left-wing government has failed to create jobs and prosperity. The second favourite to become president next year is Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. The level of support for her extreme policies shows that France is in crisis. Fillon cannot beat her by offering just a new spin on old ideas.

You Decide

  1. Have you been to France? If not, would you like to go there?
  2. What is more important in a politician: caution or a willingness to take big risks?


  1. France’s motto is ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality, fraternity). As a class, decide which three words best sum up your country’s values.
  2. The word ‘liberalism’ has many definitions. What does it mean to you? Answer in 800 words, drawing on historical examples to support your argument.

Some People Say...

“Those who don’t advance recede.”

French saying

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not French. Why should I care?
Because a lot is at stake. France is the world’s most popular tourist destination, fifth greatest military power and sixth largest economy. It is a key player in the European Union and NATO. A radical change in its government could deal a blow to the world order – especially if Le Pen wins, as she has called for France to withdraw from both the EU and NATO.
Is that likely?
Polls give Fillon a comfortable lead (although it’s risky to trust polls nowadays). He probably stands a better chance against Le Pen than Juppé would have: his nationalist rhetoric will appeal to National Front supporters. Plus, come election day, there’s a good chance left-wingers will vote for Fillon just to keep out Le Pen, as they did to her (even more extreme) father when he ran in 2002.

Word Watch

Presidential election
The first round will be held on April 23rd 2017. If no candidate wins more than 50%, the top two will face off in a final round on May 7th.
High unemployment
Unemployment in France is stuck at around 10%; in the UK and USA it is just under 5%.
Prime minister
In France, prime minister and president are separate roles. The latter is more powerful, but the former has a lot of authority. Fillon was prime minister in 2007–12.
Named after Charles de Gaulle, the legendary former general and president. Gaullism is essentially a nationalist movement. It emphasises the greatness of France, and sees a strong, centralised state as a means to unite the country and project its power abroad. By proposing to shrink the state, Fillon is breaking with his Gaullist past.
See Activities.
Extreme policies
The National Front calls for a very hard line on crime, a severe crackdown on immigration, and withdrawal from the European Union, or ‘Frexit’. It mixes nationalist, xenophobic language with a broadly left-wing economic platform designed to safeguard ‘French jobs’.

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