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The Unexpected French Reaction to Trump

By Sophie des Beauvais

On Nov. 9, France learned the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. The victory of Donald J. Trump perfectly embodies the feelings France usually has toward the United States: disdain mixed with constant the fear that America will always be ahead as a world power—economically, culturally, and politically. Indeed, over the last few years, the French regularly wondered, “Will the National Front win the upcoming elections?” Now they fear that Trump’s election foretells the outcome of the May 2017 French presidential election.

On Sunday, Nov. 27, Alain Juppé surprisingly lost his place as the official presidential candidate of the right and the center parties to François Fillon, the most conservative presidential contender. His victory upset pollster’s initial predictions that Fillon would come in third place and would rally to either Bordeaux’s moderate mayor Alain Juppé or the controversial former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet although it was unpredicted, Fillon’s victory is not that surprising since he is exactly what the French are looking for—a perfect mix between a Mr. Nobody and Trump. By choosing him, France demonstrated its will to elect someone radical but not populist.

It’s impossible to determine whether the American election influenced the vote, but it undoubtedly instilled fear that electing Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, could really happen and should be taken seriously. Thus, Fillon is filling the empty gap between the National Front and the left. The media made it clear that former President Nicolas Sarkozy was too controversial and provocative to win an election, and Alain Juppé was too moderate to seduce the vast majority of the right-wing electorate and stand in the way of the National Front.

In many ways, François Fillon represents both Sarkozy and Juppé, with the political program of the former and the stature of the latter. His opponents underestimated him during the campaign, as he wasn’t seen as a credible winner and lacked charisma, which allowed him to focus on policy instead of fighting over national identity and the wearing of religious symbols in public. He is highly neoliberal (often referred to as the French Margaret Thatcher) and is often accused of being “worse than Sarkozy” because of his radical views on Islam, immigration, and women’s rights.

Though he is not an anti-system candidate, he adopted Sarkozy’s anti-system rhetoric. “A microcosm think to know the truth on everything and talk on the behalf of the French people,” he stated during the campaign. Moreover, like Trump, he kept delegitimizing the media and journalists during the final weeks of the campaign.

Sarkozy was the perfect opponent from the perspectives of both Marine Le Pen and the Socialist Party. His radical position on identity and immigration validated the National Front’s policies and his frequent provocations and excessive personality contributed to Marine Le Pen’s popularity. His behavior and current lawsuits against him trigger strong feelings among the electorate. The Socialist Party could have easily launched personal attacks to foster hatred against him. On the other hand, Fillon is an assertive, conservative Catholic who will probably entice the traditionalist electorate of the National Front, such as Marine Le Pen’s niece Marion-Maréchal Le Pen’s supporters in southeast France. He notably wants to restore France’s national greatness and identity and plans to regulate the practice of Islam and to restrain immigration. 

Still, Fillon’s candidacy could provide a great opportunity for the Socialist Party to reinvigorate its platform. His conservative politics could unify the left by serving as a viable adversary, which could restore the polarity of the French political landscape and regain the fundamental values that have been central to the system since the election of François Mitterrand in 1981.

François Fillon is very likely to become the next president of France. He is the best candidate to stop the National Front and has no real opponent facing him. Thus, if the Socialist Party doesn’t seize the opportunity to propose a real leftist alternative to the French people, a traditionalist conservative will be the next president of France—but it won’t be the populist, anti-system candidate everybody feared, proving the country learned a lesson from the shockwaves of the Brexit and Trump votes.

*****

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Sophie des Beauvais is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of European People's Party]

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