Americans may yet have to learn to pronounce the name François Fillon. The exercise in phonetics will not be easy, since the sounds don’t exist in English. But the effort is worthwhile, since Fillon, despite a recent scandal involving jobs he gave to family members, still stands an excellent chance of becoming the next French president when elections are held in March—and thus one of the United States’ most important partners, both in trade and in the struggle against Islamist terror. And it is not just the pronunciation of his name, but also his personal and political journey, that marks him as a uniquely authentic representative of French society at this time in history.
He was born 62 years ago into a conservative bourgeois family—what the French call “une famille de notables” (an important family)—of the Loire valley, where Catholicism remains a living presence. His father was an attorney in Le Mans. François might logically have followed in his father’s footsteps if, at age fourteen, he had not met, as if on a road to Damascus, the towering figure of General Charles de Gaulle. In May 1968, a student rebellion that had started in Paris and had shaken de Gaulle’s power reached Le Mans. The Fillon family was shocked by the libertarian demands of these unkempt students. The senior Fillon was a Gaullist, with the conservative values and the devotion to the Jacobin state that this implies, but also with a certain social progressivism grounded in Christian belief. The younger Fillon, a law student, caught the eye of a Gaullist deputy and became his assistant, replacing him in 1981 both as a deputy in the National Assembly and as mayor of the town of Sablé, an important cattle-breeding center. Fillon was just 27, but from that moment on politics was his life, and he would never have another occupation.
It was a momentous year in France: François Mitterand became the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, thanks to a coalition with the Communists. Mitterand implemented a far-left program, including the nationalization of large private enterprises and a steep increase in public spending. Mitterand’s policies divided France, and Fillon joined a group of new deputies, known as the “young musketeers,” who crossed swords with the regime and refused to do business with the socialists. Fillon was not yet fighting socialism in the name of free-market liberalism; he was a Gaullist, a uniquely French position difficult to situate on the international ideological grid. For de Gaulle and the Gaullists who still appeal to his legacy today, national independence is the central imperative: France must make itself heard, a goal that does not exclude alliances with the Americans or with European neighbors. For Gaullists, the state is the instrument of independence; everything else, in particular the economy, is in the service of this national cause. (It matters little to Gaullists whether enterprises are private or public, for example.) Adapting a military phrase, de Gaulle, speaking of the economy, supposedly said “L’intendance suivra,”—that is, “logistics will take care of itself.”
One finds no trace of racism, anti-Semitism, or hostility to immigrants, whatever their national origin, among the Gaullists; it is only recently that they have concerned themselves with the problem of immigration, fearing the possible destabilization of society in a time of massive unemployment. In fact, the extreme right-wing party, the National Front, was originally founded in opposition to de Gaulle, whom it accused of having abandoned the French colonies of North Africa to the Arabs. Even today, the National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, has no worse enemy than the Gaullists. In 2002, during the second round of the presidential elections, when the Gaullist Jacques Chirac was opposed by the National Front candidate—Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie—the Left supported Chirac in a strategy that became known as the “Republican Front.” The same thing happened, from the other direction, in the parliamentary elections: the Gaullists supported socialist candidates in order to prevent a National Front victory.
Fillon has always associated himself with this strategy, which brings together the Republican Right and Left against the National Front, and it should prevent Le Pen’s winning the presidency in 2017 just as it did her father in 2002. For Fillon, this opposition to the National Front is not merely tactical. It is his view that the National Front’s extremism is not consistent with an idea of France in which social harmony must prevail over popular resentments. Fillon’s likely voters are relatively bourgeois, while Le Pen’s are much less so. Fillon also believes, as he has demonstrated in his electoral campaigns—including the recent primaries within his own party, in which he beat former president Nicolas Sarkozy, on his right, and former prime minister Alain Juppé, on his left—that Gaullist social policy is the best bulwark against populist temptations.
But what is social Gaullism without de Gaulle, and transplanted to a new era? This is where Fillon is an innovator. A longtime deputy and minister, he had not, until recently, seemed particularly creative. In his long political career, he had always played a secondary role to seemingly stronger personalities such as Chirac, Juppé, and Sarkozy. In their shadow, he had always been regarded as a devoted servant—conscientious, silent, discreet, and uncharismatic. But when this discreet man presented himself in November 2016 in his party’s primary elections against Sarkozy and Juppé, two old hands in the game of power, Fillon emerged as a new man. Right-leaning French voters suddenly discovered one of the republic’s longest-serving professional politicians and chose him because, paradoxically, he seemed to them new and refreshing.
Fillon proposes a new approach: the unheard-of blending of Gaullism and Thatcherism. Recall that, when Fillon first entered Parliament in 1981, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were in power in the United States and Great Britain. In France, these two figures seemed exotic, typically Anglo-Saxon, and their policies were alien to French sensibilities. Only a handful of French intellectuals and economists (including me) noticed that Thatcher and Reagan were opening up a new world, one that the French couldn’t afford to ignore. We also championed the French liberal tradition represented by Bastiat, Tocqueville, Rueff, Jouvenel, and Aron, thinkers often known better by American economists than by their French colleagues. But back then, Fillon was still very much a Gaullist, convinced that the strengthening of the state was a precondition of economic dynamism—until he came to see, not suddenly but gradually, that “the state, as Ronald Reagan used to say, is the problem and not the solution to the problem.”
In 2015, as he was deciding to get into the presidential race, he noted for the first time that the efforts of various governments, of the right as well as the left, to revitalize the economy and control unemployment had all failed. (One who helped bring about this awareness was Henri de Castries, former CEO of the international insurance group AXA and now Fillon’s main advisor.) Fillon acknowledges that what has not yet been tried in France is the free market, along with public spending cuts and the reduction of the bureaucracy. In 2015 and 2016 he visited Great Britain several times, where he met with conservative foundations and with Thatcherite economists; he returned home convinced that Thatcherism would be good for France. Might his wife Penelope, who is Welsh, have contributed something to his conversion? (Tocqueville had an English wife who helped much in his discovery of the Anglo-Saxon world.) We don’t know what role Madam Fillon played here, but after living almost entirely outside the public eye, she has become a regular public presence by her husband’s side.
More recently, of course, Penelope Fillon has become more visible than she ever wanted to be, with recent reports revealing that she was employed by her husband, some ten years ago, as a parliamentary assistant. Nepotism is legal in France; one-third of parliamentarians employ family members and pay them with public money. In the case of Madam Fillon however, it seems that she never really worked for her husband. Fillon argues that her counsel was essential, but nobody in Parliament remembers having seen her there. Again, this is not against the law, but it is unethical, and it tarnishes the reputation of the austere Fillon, who presents himself as a rare honest politician. He has never been indicted, in contrast with competitors like Juppe or Sakozy. Will “Penelopegate” derail Fillon’s presidential ambitions? It’s too early to know, but the damage is serious.
Still, Fillon struggles on, campaigning on themes that are, in France, almost revolutionary: cuts in taxes and the public sector, deregulation, a freer labor market, personal responsibility—and, as a good Gaullist, law and order. His competitors on right and left predictably accuse him of wanting to tear up the French social contract. The leftist press claims that he wants to eliminate the state’s health insurance coverage for the common cold. Is it so unthinkable that patients could treat themselves for a cold, out of pocket? This is a quarrel unthinkable outside France, but in France, it is a symbol of Fillon’s supposed cruelty. Fillon argues that the French social-welfare model means that half of all young people under 25 will never find a job. The free-market pill that Fillon wants the French to swallow seems more digestible on the right, especially since it is coupled with conservative concern for national values. In the name of these values, Fillon wishes to contain immigration and, in the Gaullist tradition, practice a realistic foreign policy—in the name of which, he is open to dialogue with Vladimir Putin. Does this make him like Donald Trump? Only superficially: Fillon is an experienced, predictable, and reassuring statesman, whereas the American president, new to government, is unpredictable and confrontational.
In the name of realpolitik and national independence, Fillon is profoundly European—as was de Gaulle. This is not such a paradox. For Gaullists, “Europe” meant reconciliation with Germany, which was de Gaulle’s great work. Without Europe, France is weak; within a Europe that it can substantially influence (and it should have even more influence after Great Britain’s departure), France can make itself heard. Germany may be the first economic power of Europe, but France is the first military power—and Fillon is no pacifist.
What of the European currency? Fillon favors it because France never learned to manage its money without inflation. The EU wants France to direct its economy more efficiently and responsibly, and pushes it to do so—a benefit of the EU that Americans often overlook. In France, only the National Front proposes leaving Europe, without explaining why, since such talk has the demagogic advantage of blaming the economic stagnation on a third party. This is not Fillon’s style.
If Fillon wins the presidency, he might reconcile the French with their age. This would represent something genuinely new, since, throughout their history, the French have demonstrated more aptitude for revolution than for reform. This time, let’s try reform. The unions have already announced that they will resist with all their might, but Frenchmen believe in the legitimacy of their elected government. If Fillon’s program is approved, it will be implemented. And then we will see.
Photo by Andreas Rentz