Can Europe Make It?

Fillon is a harsh austerian: on Sunday, Europeans need Juppé instead

Anti-Islam and pro-Russia, anti-LGBT and pro-Thatcher. If François Fillon wins France's right-wing primary, it will be Europe who loses.

Alessio Colonnelli
26 November 2016

François Fillon. Wikimedia. Public Domain.

We won't see a Socialist take over the Élysée Palace next spring. Of course, never say never, but the incumbent François Hollande has decidedly been the least favoured president since time immemorial. So much so, rumours say he won't even make it to his party's primary.

The presidential election second ballot in May could easily be a right-wing affair: so-called moderates against self-absorbed extremists. It wouldn't be surprising if Marine Le Pen won the first round. After all, the Front National leader received well over 6 million preferences in 2012 (17.90 per cent of the vote on a fairly high turnout of 79.48 per cent) and astoundingly secured third place, only 10.73 per cent behind the first-round winner. In the end, Hollande only won by a whisker.

This time round, France will be split in two almost equal halves too; but on this occasion, the slightly prevailing mood is of a deeply conservative grain, like elsewhere across most of Europe. Austerity and immigration have made citizens entrench themselves within the few certainties left – understandably.

Yet, Le Pen's outrageous stance is a deeply divisive one. It's very difficult to see how the majority of the French – one of the most diverse societies in Western Europe, a nation still enjoying an exceptionally high score on the Human Equality Index and a relatively low one on the GINI scale – would accept the leadership of an anti-EU and downright xenophobic president.

Discontent is rife, sure (as mature middle-class societies will always be, constantly needing more and never getting it, perpetually dissatisfied with themselves), but France is hardly reaching tipping point. Most French know this. Allowing sectarian politics at presidential level seems an unlikely outcome.

Therefore, even if Le Pen were to win the first-round – and if she does, it'd be by the smallest of margins –, conservative and progressive voters could easily join forces and turn that round by choosing the Republican candidate (or the unlikely Socialist one). This is why the rest of Europe should hope to see Alain Juppé win the centre-right primary on Sunday 27 and not François Fillon.

For a start, Fillon's foreign policy sounds dangerously skewed: he wants to put an end to both sanctions against Russia over the conflict in eastern Ukraine – he's on first-name terms with Vladimir Putin – and work with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Fillon claimed this week that France's war against “Islamic totalitarianism” meant “we’ll need lots of allies, among them Russia”.

Furthermore, his stance on family matters would turn back the clock. A traditional Catholic, Fillon voted three years ago against the introduction of same-sex marriage; in 1982 he also voted against the law that in effect legalised homosexuality. Even a politically aligned gay rights association (GayLib) said that Fillon's vision of France is “antiquated … and clearly hostile to LGBT people”. If that's not enough, there's plenty more.

Judging by their programmes, the ultra-conservative Fillon appears to be a real austerian, something Juppé is not, even though the latter also wants to shrink the State, but not as radically. Referring to Fillon's programme, Juppé told the media that “Cutting 500,000 civil servant jobs, taking working hours to 39 hours [from 35], and increasing VAT by 16 billion euros are measures of a certain brutality”. He then clarified that “A break from the past should not consist of breaking the house. The house is fragile. You have to carry out reforms and mine are audacious, but are realistic and credible.”

Now, we've all seen how austerity has done unprecedented damage to the EU. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) famously conceded this some time ago. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has implied that excessive austerity is purely ideological and hugely deleterious. The Eurogroup, for instance, inflicted a tremendous punishment on Greece from which no-one knows when the country will ever recover.

Consider: every time a major European country's government – and in France, unlike Italy or Germany, the head of state steers government – moves dramatically away from the centre towards the deep right (as France would do if Fillon were to grab power), then the EU as a project for the common good suffers. Enormously so.

David Cameron provided the last major example of such dynamics: to quench the orthodox right's thirst for EU blood, he conceded a referendum that should never have taken place, not in that simplistic form at least. The EU is still reeling from the Brexit blow; and who will benefit from it? Aside all the rhetoric, again, no-one really knows. How tragically twisted it sounds.

So, for the sake of a united Europe, one informed by solidarity rather than short-term self-interest, let's really hope Fillon loses the runoff. We need investment – enough of extreme views in politics and unemployment-triggered misery. They do no good to any of us, anywhere in Europe. Ripple effects travel long distances in no time. Particularly if they stem from France.

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