Political Shocker: French Voters Lurch Right


The year 2016 seems determined to pack in as many political shockers as possible.

Last Sunday, France joined the growing list of the year’s political upsets when the long-shot conservative candidate, Francois Fillon, came first in his party’s presidential primary. This was a massive shock to Nicholas Sarkozy, a former president, who was eliminated from the primary.

Now Fillon will face the centrist Alain Juppe in the second round of the primary. His victory would signal a stunning rightward turn in French politics.

A Different Kind of Election

Like in America, French elections are broken into two phases: Party primaries and the general election. Yet, unlike most elections in America, each of these phases is broken into two distinct stages. First is a free-for-all election in which all candidates are on the ballot. The top two vote-getters from this round then move on two a one-one-one run-off.

Interestingly, some parts of the United States do use this system, most notably Louisiana, the former French territory (though France did not adopt this system until long after Louisiana joined the Union, making this shared electoral system merely a quirk of history).

The French Mistake

The Republicans (the French conservative party) had their first-round primary on Sunday, which pitted two former prime ministers (Fillon and Juppe) against a former president (Sarkozy). Most commentators expected it to be a show dominated by Juppe and Sarkozy, and pollsters expected Juppe to come out of the primary with a commanding lead. Instead, Sarkozy was eliminated and Fillon romped to victory, taking 43 percent of the vote.

Fillon’s performance was truly shocking. Now Juppe, the staid and boring centrist, looks vulnerable. The new expectation is that Fillon will indeed win the second round, which takes place Sunday. That will certainly alter the dynamics of the election for the Republicans, the other parties, and the French people.

Thatcherite in French Clothing

Francois Fillon offers much for someone interested in liberty and free markets to admire. He is an unabashed admirer of Margaret Thatcher, a great rarity in France.

He wants to tear apart the restrictive and byzantine regulatory codes that strangle French businesses, and he wants to break down many of the labor laws that have contributed to slow growth and stagnation. Even the sacred 35-hour work week is in his sights for elimination.

It seems like the French public, or at least those who lean rightward, see a profound need for reform of the economy and public institutions. Fillon’s message of genuine change seems to resonate with that desire more than the business-as-usual attitude of Juppe.

Yet, there is a lot for lovers of liberty to fear in a Fillon presidency. He is a social conservative on a level rarely seen in mainstream French politics. A devout Catholic, he opposes abortion and intends to ban adoption by gay couples. He has also tapped into fears of Muslims, frequently labeling them all as dangers to French society, not just radicals. These attitudes are quite scary for anyone who genuinely appreciates individual choice and civil liberties.

Right vs. Far Right

The American attitude toward France is that everyone there is socialist, and left-wingers always rule the roost. But that belief looks to be shattered in the coming general election. If Fillon wins the second round – and it seems very likely he will – then he will face a divided left and a resurgent National Front.

The National Front is France’s ultra-nationalist (and borderline fascist) party. It has gained support in recent years, but has usually been shut out of power at local and national levels. Yet, thanks to the collapse of the Socialist Party, led by the current president, Francois Hollande, the National Front looks set to have its leader, Marine Le Pen, make it to the second round of the general election.

Thus, the final head-to-head in 2017 will likely be between a surprisingly right-wing mainstream candidate, and a terrifyingly right-wing insurgent candidate. That’s hardly the France we are used to.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.