By Anton Mukhamedov
After a series of significant revelations targeting his wife and children’s allegedly fictitious jobs, major right-wing French presidential candidate François Fillon has already been discounted by several important media outlets and politicians, including some from Les Républicains, his own party.
Despite the investigation into the veracity of the claims about Penelope Fillon’s work as an “assistante parlementaire” (parliamentary assistant to her husband) still unfolding, the candidate’s party is already discussing the option of replacement. Those who look for alternatives bring up the ex-minister of finance under Sarkozy, François Baroin. Others bring up the centre-right Alain Juppé, even though he originally refused to run even if Fillon is indicted.
Why still care about François Fillon? The candidate seems to be sinking in the polls, and while the predictive power of such assertions has been shown to be largely insufficient by some of the political events of the past year, it is the impression which they will convey that will perhaps count the most.
Nevertheless, a non-negligible group of militants is still standing strong. Fillon’s official campaign launch last week at Porte de la Villette, for instance, welcomed between 13,000 and 15,000 attendees. Returning to this event helps to visualize some of the broader social trends in a France where the idea that a long-needed radical change is blocked – either by the country’s elites, institutions or people – is persistent as ever.
At a moment when Fillon’s wave is possibly at one of the lowest points, it is not inconsequential to analyze why it ever happened to rise so high. Most strikingly, the candidate represents what is most appealing as well as sclerotic about what Jean-Luc Mélenchon, one of his most fervent opponents, refers to as “presidential monarchy”. Even those who dislike Fillon and his program the most will notice the sentiment amongst his supporters. They extended their solidarity to both Penelope and François, unanimously condemning what is seen as an orchestrated attempt to harm their candidate.
The less enchanting aspect is the unconditional trust and an almost fanatical fervor directed towards a single man, who promises to stand still as a rock on which the left will break.
The man has been invested with the responsibility to return full employment to France. He will provide a much greater margin of manoeuvre to the employer as well as an increased purchasing power to the worker. He will successfully restore order and cap immigration. He will render the state apparatus much more efficient while drastically, albeit progressively, reducing the amount of those working for it. This type of discourse has found its appeal even among the fonctionnaires themselves, who, according to recent reports, have been moving towards the right in the recent years.
What is so massively appealing in a rhetoric deeply engrained in neoclassical supply-side economics and “produce more, earn more” ideology? Perhaps the assurance with which Mr Fillon claims to be able to achieve all of the above, or perhaps his intransigence. He is an outspoken orator for the values of the French Republic, reinterpreting them in his own way; he links liberty to entrepreneurship, for instance. Yet, he is uncompromising with anyone who seems to go against the normal functioning of the French society and therefore, according to him, undermines those values: whether it is the syndicates engaging in collective action, the “savages” from the Nuit Debout resistance movement, the young delinquents of the city suburbs—whose crimes were spoken about at length while the question of police brutality, for instance, have been conveniently left out of light—Islamic sectarianism or those migrants, who may ask for rights before accomplishing their duties.
It is ironic therefore that such words are pronounced a few minutes away from the La Chapelle center for asylum seekers which relies heavily on volunteer efforts despite which many still end up sleeping in the streets. But even the refugee crisis has been an occasion for the candidate to comment on the relevance and pertinence of his tough stance on migration, as, according to him, in order to welcome refugees with decency, it is necessary to refuse economic migrants, whom France is apparently economically unable to host.
Fillon’s supporters will mostly see in his program courage and ambition; his detractors will see contradiction. Fillon himself attempts to reconcile any and all contradiction within French society. He unexpectedly cited Abbé Pierre, trying to demonstrate that what French associations need is exactly what he proposes: his program providing a necessary level of legislative clarity and fighting the bureaucratization of state structures. This comes after the notice that his own parents had been part of Emmaüs, the biggest French volunteer organization helping the homeless and the poor.
Already at this point, it is possible to note that such a vision is riddled with fragile compromises and paradoxes. By exclusively tackling the problems which are the concern of the upper classes, by perpetuating the stereotype that French suburbs are wild “no-go zones,” and by presenting Islam as a religion which favors sectarianism and is currently incompatible with the Republic, Fillon traces a divisive border along French society.
The result of the first round of the election at the end of April, whether or not Fillon presents himself, will show whether such an attempt at a reconciliation will have proven to be fruitful. It remains possible that Fillon’s anti-bureaucratism and pro-order rhetoric will have convinced more than just Fillon’s circle of voters.
And even if it doesn’t, Fillon’s movement will nevertheless have reawakened a dormant intransigence among the French conservatives, sometimes displaying a friendly face, but unwilling to budge.