France elects a new president next year, and it is becoming clear that in France, too, the familiar ground of politics is shifting. On Sunday, 27th of November, François Fillon was chosen in an open primary as the candidate for France’s center-right Republican Party (formerly named the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP). In the primary process, he defeated former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé. Although he also served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012, Fillon’s victory surprised commentators, partly because his economic proposals run contrary to the grain of French politics.

The French Republicans claim the mantle of De Gaulle, but François Fillon might as well be channeling Margaret Thatcher. His manifesto proposes a sword of austerity that would cut back the state by trimming 100 billion Euros from the budget and dismissing up to 500,000 public servants. He also wants to loosen France’s notoriously protectionist labor laws, lengthen the working week (currently 35 hours), and delay pensionable retirement.

It is Fillon’s initiatives on immigration and comments on Islamism that raise eyebrows. He wants new and robust controls on the external frontiers of the Schengen zone (an area of 26 European countries that allows crossing borders without passports or border controls; it includes non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland, while EU countries the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland are not included). This sounds like code to help Greece and Italy to turn back the tide. He would amend the constitution to make immigration depend on whether new arrivals could be integrated. Islam appears in his manifesto under the heading of women’s rights. He says that radical Islam is “a menace which targets women” and that “there are areas where men live like masters and rule by fear, limiting the freedom of movement of their women.” If necessary, places of worship where there is inflammatory language should be closed down, and it should be forbidden to preach in Arabic. Non-state schools should be closely scrutinized to make sure that they respect the equality of men and women.

The first round of the elections is on April 23. Polls now suggest that Fillon and Marine Le Pen of the National Front will proceed to the run-off on May 7. The current president, François Hollande, whose approval rating this year has been as low as 4%, has decided not to stand again. His lackluster performance has damaged the Socialist Party and increased Le Pen’s chances of entering the second round. The National Front reached this stage only once before, in 2002 when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, won 17.8% of the vote to Jacques Chirac’s 82.2%. Since then Marine Le Pen has sought to re-position the party as a more moderate force and has expelled her father, who ran the National Front for 40 years despite convictions for inflammatory language and Holocaust denial.

Libération Francois Fillon
Cover of Libération from November 24, 2016.

If François Fillon and Marine Le Pen do enter the 2017 run-off, it would be clear that there was a sea change in France. It would leave the voters of France with difficult choices. To vote for Fillon would be a vote for austerity and for an end to cossetted labor practices. To vote for Marine Le Pen would be a vote for a party with a troubling past.

Interviews with Fillon often note that he is a practicing Catholic, and his emergence as a leading candidate has attracted criticism. Certainly he appeals to voters with more traditional values. In response the left-wing daily Libération put a map of France on its front page with the slogan: “Help! Jesus is back.” It worried about the power of Catholic lobbyists in a future Fillon presidency. Perhaps the editors should worry instead about the insurgent power of the voters in a democracy.

Terry Tastard, PhD, is pastor of a Catholic parish in London. He has an article about South Africa in the forthcoming print edition of Providence.

Photo Credit: François Fillon speaking in Paris during a UMP meeting on November 26, 2011. By UMP, via Flickr.