The ‘open primaries of the Right and the Centre’, fought over two Sundays in November 2016, have challenged two unwritten ‘rules’ of the French Fifth Republic. First, the Gaullist one of the direct relationship between the providential leader and the people unmediated by party. In this tradition, the leader emerges naturally to represent the force of history; the party is a presidential rally to organize support for the exceptional leader. If we can recognize the Gaullist genealogy of this style in the history of the French right, for a long-time French Presidents have no longer corresponded to this ideal. The vibrant primary elections revealed a movement that is anything but subordinate: whether this is interpreted in terms of a confrontation of powerful Barons or a successful exercise in direct democracy. The hollowing of the Gaullist myth is closely associated with a second unwritten rule: that control of a political party produces a natural advantage for a candidate seeking election to the presidency. Mitterrand in 1981, Chirac in 1995, Sarkozy in 2007 all represented versions of this truism. The introduction of the primary elections, first for the PS in 2006 and 2011, and now for the Right and the Centre (in fact, LR), have laid bare the shifting foundations of presidential power. The success of the PS primaries in 2011 occurred because the voting constituency was broadened well beyond the traditional party members and activists; the party itself was fairly marginal to the procedure and reconfigured on the basis of the results in the primary election. Capturing control of the party is no longer an adequate gauge of the ability to stand as the party’s candidate; Martine Aubry controlled the party from 2008, but failed to win the primary and secure the PS nomination in 2011. Sarkozy’s return to take control of UMP/LR in 2014 was accompanied by a commitment to introduce primaries, forced upon him by Alain Juppé and François Fillon.
The ‘open primaries of the right and the centre’ were fought over two rounds on 20th and 27th November. The fortunes of the candidates oscillated widely once the campaign began in earnest in late summer, but most had assumed that the run-off would pit former President Nicolas Sarkozy against former Premier Alain Juppé. In the event, Francois Fillon, long considered as the outsider, even as Mister Nobody (in the charming opinion of former President Sarkozy), emerged in powerful first position (44.1%), making the opinion pollsters the first losers of this primary election. The first round results were widely interpreted as a surprise. ‘Speedy Sarko’ was the main victim. In a previous blog, I wondered whether Sarkozy was on the road to nowhere, with an identity focused campaign aimed at siphoning potential FN voters but ignoring core socio-economic concerns. The maneuver fell flat: Sarkozy managed to poll just 20.7%, producing an abrupt and immediate end to his political career and unlikely resurrection. The second unanticipated result of the first round lay in the counter-performance of Alain Juppé (28.6%), who had appeared withdrawn (even complacent) throughout the campaign and who clearly expected to be present, in a commanding position, on the second round against a damaged Sarkozy. In the event, François Fillon emerged strongly with over 44.1% on the first round, though he had been trailing with barely 10% in fourth place a few weeks earlier. For the record: the other candidates were each squeezed by the triumvirate in head: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (2.6%) narrowly outperformed Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to win the battle of the forty-somethings (les quadras). The wooden spoon was reserved for the unfortunate Jean-Francois Copé (0.3%), the former UMP General Secretary (elected against Fillon for that position in controversial circumstances in 2012), who trailed the Christian Democrat party candidate Jean-Francois Poisson (1.5%). Fillon’s second round triumph – with 66.5% of votes counted at the time of writing – was built, amongst other factors, upon a high rate of transfer of first round Sarkozy voters.
Who were the winners and losers of the primary and what are the likely consequences? François Fillon was the obvious main winner, elected on 27th November as the LR candidate with two-thirds of the 4,300-000-4,500,000 voters who participated in the primaries. On the first round, Fillon came ahead in 11 out of 13 regions (all save New Aquitaine [Juppé] and Corsica [Sarkozy]), 87 départements in metropolitan France, against 7 for Alain Juppé (essentially in the New Aquitaine region) and 2 for Nicolas Sarkozy (Corsica, Overseas). The results delivered a favourite son effect for Fillon, who registered impressive scores in Pays de la Loire region [59.7%], where he arrived in first position in each department, achieving a peak of 78.5% in the Sarthe (that he had represented as a deputy). Rather than its spatial concentration, however, the core lesson to be drawn from Fillon’s first round vote lies in its broad national spread. Fillon led in regions such as Brittany that might have been expected to lean to the centrist Juppé, as well as in the former Sarkozy strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. Alain Juppe was runner up in most regions, except in the geographically specific south-west (6 of the 12 départements of the New Aquitaine region, the zone of influence of Bordeaux), along with a stronger performance in Paris region, where the Ile-de-France regional leader Valérie Pecresse had rallied to him. Sarkozy could draw cold comfort: the former President was beaten into third position almost everywhere, including in the historic stronghold of Hauts-de-Seine. The pole position of the first round was transformed into a triumph on the second, with Fillon attracting the support of three million electors and arriving in first position almost everywhere (except the Gironde, Corrèze and Guyane départements).
How Fillon won relatively clear. Why Fillon won is a rather more complex question, involving three distinct levels of analysis: the personal, the programmatic/ideological and the conjectural. First, the personal equation. Fillon was widely lauded for a well prepared campaign, a detailed and serious policy programme and a professional performance during the three TV debates between the 7 candidates. In the three presidential debates, Fillon appeared at least as ‘presidential’ as any other candidate. By surviving as Sarkozy’s premier for 5 years (2007-2012), Fillon had demonstrated personal endurance. Though Sarkozy’s treatment of his premier (or ‘collaborator’, as described in 2007) produced lasting tensions, the fact remained that Fillon and Sarkozy had shared control of the State for five years and the ex-President rallied without hesitation. At the level of programme and ideology, Fillon claimed to have a programme that would create a ‘rupture’ with existing social and economic models (a rather similar claim had been made ten years earlier by Sarkozy). Fillon presented his programme as radical, most explicitly during the second round debate against Juppé. The centre of gravity of the Fillon programme lay in his attention to the socio-economic and state reform axis. The successful candidate advocates strongly the need to reduce the power of the State in the economy, to bring down company taxation, to end the 35 hour week, to weaken social protection, to support business and enterprise, to engage in a radical reform of the Labour market (including a thoroughgoing revision of the Labour code) and to shed 500,000 jobs in the public sector. In fairness, the leading candidates were arguing over shades of blue. There was a relative cohesion between the economic policy stances of the main candidates, each promising a version of the most economically liberal programme since the Chirac’s RPR-UDF government (1986-88). The debate between the candidates centered on the extent and rhythm of the shrinkage of the public sector (500,000 jobs, in the case of Fillon, 250,000 for Juppé) and how far and fast to reduce public expenditure. Both leading candidates agreed on the need to increase the retirement age to 65.
This relative cohesion in relation to economic policy was disrupted by clearly distinctive positions on foreign policy and controversy over the role of Putin’s Russia that Fillon seeks to bring back into the orbit of European diplomacy. A secondary line of cleavage concerned multiculturalism and cultural liberalism. While Juppé positioned himself as a candidate open to the diverse origins of contemporary and advocated a respect for minorities, Fillon sent out strong identity markers to provincial Catholic conservative electorate (notably on family issues and adoption), though he refused to be drawn on abortion or gay marriage. Fillon’s programme claims to be tough on Islamic terrorism. It rejects aspects of multi-culturalism and adopts an assimilationist ideology not far from that of Sarkozy. The convergences between Sarkozy and Fillon (strengthened by the rallying of the former to the latter) were demonstrated by the controversy over Fillon’s proposals to rewrite history programmes in Schools to encourage a ‘national narrative’. If Fillon did little to hide his background as a provincial Catholic conservative, the economic and state reform dimension are clearly placed in the forefront. In the French context, this cocktail of economic liberalism and social conservatism raises immediate comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, a comparison willingly embraced by Fillon.
Finally, the conjectural dimension needs to be taken into account. Rather paradoxically, Fillon benefited from being off focus for the main media battles between Juppé and Sarkozy, at least insofar as he was subject to less penetrating media analysis. Fillon occupied the central position in a political landscape marked by a shift to the political right (demonstrated in numerous surveys and notably the CEVIPOF-IPSOS-SOPRA-STORIA-Le Monde 2017 election survey). In the light of recent debates over populism and anti-politics in the wake of BREXIT and Trump, Fillon might be read as an anti-populist candidate. The ‘populist’ candidate who celebrated Trump’s election was Sarkozy, not Fillon, the provincial, Catholic, conservative promising economic pain in the interests of national revival. Surveys demonstrated that the kind of national identity politics Sarkozy was proposing were important to some electors, but less important than social and economic issues to electors as a whole. If Juppé scored strongly on the latter, and Sarkozy on the former, Fillon was seen by supporters as being the only candidate able to bridge the identity and economic concerns of the electorate.
Set against the standard of François Fillon, the other leading candidates faltered. Juppé suffered from his open advocacy of the alliance of the Right and the Centre. Sarkozy’s attacks against Juppé on the basis that he would ally with the centrist François Bayrou hit the mark for a fraction of the LR electorate. Juppé’s espousal of l’identité heureuse and pleas in favour of multi-cultural tolerance were notable virtues… but went against the spirit of the times in the ranks of the Conservative electorate. Was Juppé damaged by the ‘Socialists’ that openly declared they would vote for him? Quite possibly.
For his part, Sarkozy encountered determined resistance, including from the approximately 10-15% of electors who declared themselves to be on the left. Sarkozy stands as one of the most influential politicians of his time, a reformer who energized the French presidency, but whose reforms have not really stood the test of time , with some exceptions. Will Sarkozy be remembered as the tax-cutting President who raised the fiscal burden over the course of his presidency? As the economic liberal who turned to state intervention? As the friend of diversity who ended up excluding those who challenged the quasi-colonialist belief of ‘our ancestors the Gaullists’? As the campaign gathered pace, Sarkozy appeared as a ‘has been’, as did Juppé, the former premier whose welfare reforms had brought the country to a standstill in 1995.
Smaller games were also being played. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (2.6%) came ahead of Bruno le Maire (2.4%) to represent the quadras, a minor but important win. NKM’s performance was probably enough to ensure a bright future, even though she backed Juppé on the run-off. On the other hand, the rallying of Valerie Pécresse, President of the Ile-de-France region and former Fillon supporter, to Juppé days before the first round remains an enigma. There is a more general point: though no-one can predict the victor, the consequences of choices are long lasting. Witness the rallying of Sarkozy’s lieutenants to Fillon as soon as the first round results were known. The longer-term consequences of the primary elections on restructuring the structure of political opportunities are considerable: the 2011 PS primary demonstrated that presence in the primary ensured a political future. It is not sure, though, that the 0.3% obtained by Copé will be of much use (apart from the therapeutic benefit of having been free to fight the primary and witness the downfall of Sarkozy).
Les Républicains as an organisation emerged as another winner. There were over 4,200,000 voters on the first round (some 9% of the total electoral body), a figure that increased somewhat on the second round. Nobody contested the legitimacy of the process, unlike the Fillon- Copé spat for the leadership for the UMP four years earlier. The High Authority for the organization of the primary managed the process in a neutral way and rose to the logistical challenge (apart from running out of ballot papers and envelopes, in Paris notably). The first ever primary election for the mainstream right appeared to give an electoral boost to the victorious candidate, in advance of an anticipated victory in May 2017. Finally, the primary produced a turnover of almost 17,000,000 euros (on the basis of 8,500,000 electors paying 2 euros each) half of which would be drawn upon the Fillon in the presidential election campaign itself.
The immediate polls carried out in the aftermath of Fillon’s election pointed to a comfortable second round victory for the LR candidate against Marine Le Pen. But being installed as favourite this far in advance is a mixed blessing – as Alain Juppé discovered to his cost in the ‘primary of the Right and the Centre’.
 Le Monde ‘Primaire de la Droite: Résultats du premier tour’, 22 November 2016.