What François Fillon’s Victory Means for Syria

French Republican candidate François Fillon recently won the primary vote with over two-thirds of the ballots cast in his favor. Unlike the French left, Fillon is reconcilable with Russia and seeks to find a diplomatic solution for the situation in Syria. Can the “de-escalation” candidate make a difference?

Sixty-six percent of French voters chose former Prime Minister François Fillon, as the Republican candidate for president, in the open primary. A few weeks ago Fillon was one of the contestants polling very low in the 7-head conservative race. Part of his success lies in his advocacy of cutting government spending and taking on the trade unions, yet the 62 year-old Member of Parliament also represents a major shift in French foreign policy.

France’s current policy regarding Syria

France is one of two Western countries (along with the US) actively supporting the Syrian opposition, and the first country to join the US-led Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) in Syria.

ISIS militants have claimed that the November 2015 Paris attacks were retaliation for France’s deep involvement in the fight against Islamic extremism:

“Let France and those who walk in its path know that they will remain on the top of the list of targets of the Islamic State, and that the smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign, and dare to curse our Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, and are proud of fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes, which did not help them at all in the streets of Paris and its rotten alleys.”

The République has been involved in attacking key ISIS infrastructure, and is an important part of the war crimes investigation of the Syrian government; France is also the only EU-country to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean Sea in order to fly attack missions in Syria and Iraq. Current President Francois Hollande’s government has been continuous in calling on the United Nations Security Council to find a solution (recently calling for a meeting on the 29th of November), yet he has shown no efforts to solve the current tensions with the Russian Federation.

Russian president Vladimir Putin cancelled a visit to Paris in October, after Hollande told a French TV station that Russia could face an ICC indictment for the bombardment of Aleppo.

The strengthening of French involvement in Syria after the Paris attacks were a way for Hollande to show his country’s importance on the world stage, and served as a method of retaliation for a terrified France. In every aspect, the French reaction is very similar to the US reaction after 9/11: Rising popularity for the President, military intervention, internal religious tension and the broadening of mass surveillance programs.

Fillon’s Putin-proximity and its effects

Vladimir Putin complimented Fillon by saying that he is a “great professional” and a “very principled person”. Indeed, Putin claims that both men practice a “good relationship”, stemming from the time when they were both Prime Minister of their respective countries. Fillon had previously stated that the situation in Ukraine wasn’t the lone fault of Russian foreign policy. Fillon’s former primary rival, Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé attacked him for this by saying:

“This must be the first presidential election in which the Russian president chooses his candidate – that slightly shocked me.”

Fillon intends to restore diplomatic relations with Russia, and considers a restoration of talks with the Syrian government as a “window” to find a solution in the region. The former Prime Minister is also calling for a lifting of the sanctions that were implemented as a reaction to the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula; he supports Moscow in their backing of the Eastern Ukrainian secessionist movement in Donbass.

François Fillon’s foreign policy proposals will manifestly influence the debates in the general election, until the first round vote next May. He will face a Socialist Party that is likely to follow Hollande’s footsteps in maintaining a frozen relationship with Russia; as well as Marine Le Pen’s National Front, whose own proximity to Vladimir Putin and non-interventionism will be in close agreement with the Republican candidate.

With the low polling numbers of the French left, this could mean that France will spark foreign policy conflicts over Syria inside the European Union; and may find itself aligned with the Trump administration.

* Bill Wirtz is a libertarian blogger and activist who studies in France. He promotes liberty in Europe by blogging and publishing in local newspapers in four different languages and as a Local Coordinator for European Students for Liberty.

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