Surprise! French right wing voters get a right wing candidate

François Fillon’s victory in the right wing primary campaign last week might provide a strategy for conventional parties aiming to prevent the extremes from winning the next election. But this campaign also shows that the establishment still doesn’t truly understand the electorate.

We live in an “Age of Rage”. Never before has there been such a chasm between citizens’ hopes and fears and the ability of those that govern to address them — or even listen. Brexit, Trump’s victory, and the Austrian presidential elections are all evidence that popular wrath has to be handled intelligently; the establishment cannot keep ignoring it. François Fillon’s victory in the right wing primary campaign this week might provide a strategy for conventional parties aiming to prevent the extremes from winning the next election. But this campaign also showed how far the establishment is from understanding the electorate.

This anti-establishment trend disintegrates the classic left-right political spectrum. Recently, it has been shown to not be the sole preserve of parties at the extremes of this spectrum. In France however, so far only extreme parties have provided an outlet for these sentiments, with mainstream politics yet to engage with this discontent. Both Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to reheat his Trump-style populist ideas and Alain Juppé’s reliance on messages based on consensus, sound like a denial of the French economic reality. Both demonstrate the failure of most conventional political leaders to understand the French age of rage.

The lack of trust toward the political class in France is so deep that having the right message is not enough to win. These messages have to be embodied in someone who sounds both upright as well as authentically concerned and aware of French issues.

And this is probably why the former French Prime Minister François Fillon won the mainstream right primary elections yesterday. In what looked like bitter revenge from the Chiraquiens against Nicolas Sarkozy, who beat them in 2004, Alain Juppé seemed to be the favourite in the primary election. But consistency, seriousness, sobriety, humility, sincerity, reflection and probity have characterised François Fillon throughout his campaign. And while for months the media and pollsters obsessed about Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, the third man carried on campaigning relentlessly. His resilience obviously paid off.

The week between the two rounds was the most revealing; focusing our attention on the disconnect between the establishment and the electors. Once Sarkozy was out, the media, Alain Juppé and his supporters energetically turned against François Fillon. They portrayed him as the ultimate fascist, who would both bring the worse of religion and austerity- a word on par with blasphemy in the upper levels of the French establishment- back into French political life. Libération’s November 24th issue even ran with a cover proclaiming “Help! Jesus is back!”. While the accusations launched against him were blatant fallacy, they mocked the basic beliefs and uncertainties of most of the French population.

As a politician for 33 years, has Alain Juppé never been taught that insulting millions of people is not the best way to get their support? Have his key endorsers not shown him the brilliant Jonathan Pie’s video on Trump’s victory? Did no one suggest that caricaturing your adversary and his supporters’ values might not be the wisest strategy? Mocking conservatism, liberalism, Catholicism, realism and France’s history is a strange tactic for a candidate of the right in a shattered France.

“The living dead have long haunted French politics” noted the New York Times recently on François Hollande. “Some resurrect themselves after near-death experiences in politics, while others continue to appear politically alive even when they have actually died”.

Those words are apt for Alain Juppé. His “happy identity” campaign did not succeed in erasing the memory of his participation in six governments that achieved very little since the 80s. Neither could it completely clean his past condemnation for public funds abuse; the sort of corruption that the French will no longer stand for.

More than ever, French electors expect guts, radical actions, realism, transparency, accountability and, most importantly, respect from their political leaders. François Fillon just proved that those values are not exclusive to the extremes. Political courage is the only way out of the establishment’s arrogance and François Fillon understood it.