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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

End of the Sarkozy Era and François Fillon’s Return to Gaullist Values

Filed under: Europe and Israel, The Middle East, World Jewry

The first and second rounds of the Republican Party primaries in France saw the humiliating defeats, respectively, of former President Nicolas Sarkozy and of Alain Juppé, who served as prime minister and foreign minister. The surprising result is the emergence of François Fillon as the new leader of the right and the center. Fillon, with almost 67 percent of the votes, trounced all competitors. His win bolsters the view that the rule of the Socialists and the leftist parties has ended, and that indeed the chances are good that in May 2017, at the end of the elections, a new president will live in the Élysée Palace: François Fillon.

François Fillon meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2014
François Fillon meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2014

Sarkozy’s poor showing can be attributed to several factors:

  • He already failed in the previous elections of May 2012 when he tried to extend his mandate for another five years.
  • His failure enabled the Socialists to take office and nullify his achievements in the economic and domestic-security domains.
  • Sarkozy is suspected of several instances of bribery and irregularities during election campaigns. His name is linked with criminals and with Muammar Qaddafi. Although there is no conclusive evidence of misdeeds, he is still under a shadow.
  • Sarkozy was different from his predecessors. He drew attention to his family, to his second wife, the model Carla Bruni, and to a good deal of idle gossip. He was an immigrant’s son who sometimes spoke acerbically. He was a leader who breached conventions and fought the legal system and the trade unions, and tried to implement extensive reforms.  
  • Sarkozy was hated by most of the media, and he fought it throughout his tenure.
  • The French got fed up with the episodes and the gossip; they preferred Fillon as a presidential candidate because he has a stable family, is a Catholic, and is perceived as honest, serious, stalwart, and upstanding. He is viewed as a patriot capable of fighting corruption and trade unions, working on behalf of family values, and especially standing against the spread of radical Islam.

Who Is François Fillon?

As a teenager, Fillon dreamed of becoming a journalist. Now 62, he is an enthusiast of racing cars and regularly participates in several races. He is also a mountain climber who strives to excel and be the first to reach the summit.

Fillon already got involved in politics as a graduate student, joining the Gaullist Party. For him, General Charles de Gaulle and the Gaullist values embodied the power of France in all the spheres: military, economic, scientific, and cultural. Today, he seeks to restore France to a major political role in the world as the pacesetter for the European countries.

In the early 1980s, after a short stint as a parliamentary aide, Fillon was elected to the National Assembly at the age of 28. Since then he has served as communication minister and prime minister during all five years of Sarkozy’s tenure as president.

What Does Fillon Stand For?

Fillon typifies the conservative, traditional French bourgeoisie who mostly live in the provincial towns. As a Catholic, he regularly attends mass with his wife and five children.

In the economic realm, he espouses the liberal and tough outlook of Margaret Thatcher. His plans are far-reaching. He wants to dismiss 500,000 state employees, extend the retirement age by three years to 65, trim the bureaucracy, and restore autonomy to enterprises, with local workers committees and independent decision-making on all issues of human resources. He thereby seeks to reduce the role of the trade unions, most of which are ensconced in the radical left, so that they will stop interfering in the economy and dictating how to manage it. Their direct interference has paralyzed infrastructures, with frequent strikes in all sectors.

Fillon opposed the Maastricht Treaty that established the European Union in 1992. As a pragmatic man of programs and reforms, however, he accepts the EU’s authority. At the same time, he would prefer to reduce the number of states in the EU and establish a European economic government for the Euro bloc only. He calls for a referendum on the issue. He has gone so far as to propose adding Russia, with a special status. He also seeks to strengthen the alliance with Germany and establish a confederation between the two states. In the face of competition from the United States and the Asian markets, Fillon believes in strengthening the single currency and investments in the framework of free trade, as long as this is carefully calibrated to ward off China’s hegemonic ambitions.

Security and Foreign Policy

As a Gaullist and a patriot, he is a strong opponent of selling French assets to princes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, following Qatar becoming a major buyer in recent years.

Although Fillon was indeed prime minister for five years, in France, foreign affairs are a domaine reserve conducted by the president himself with help from the Foreign Ministry.

As waves of terror hit Europe, Fillon will focus his policy on the security of the French. He will increase budgets and institute reforms in the manpower of the military, police, security, and intelligence services. He will equip them with state-of-the-art systems.

A book Fillon just published calls for an all-out campaign against radical Islam. He promised to expel the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood from France and to close the mosques where incitement and terror are preached. He will take drastic measures, impose strict border control, and will not hesitate to expel any immigrant who lacks residence and work permits.

Fillon’s worldview centers on the “family nucleus.” Despite his strong opposition to homosexuality, same-sex marriages, and abortions, apparently, he will not alter the liberal laws that were introduced by the Left. He will, however, work to ensure the child’s wellbeing and future in society. Fillon will also act to have French history taught in the schools from the first grade. He asserts that students lack any basic understanding of the history of the French people and that history is now being taught in high schools in line with ideology and party criteria, a situation he wants to change completely.

Unlike both Sarkozy and the current president, François Hollande, who tried to cultivate “communitarianism”—the development of the community framework—Fillon strongly opposes the notion that immigrants do not need to be integrated into the “French family.” His outlook is particularly controversial on issues of circumcision, halal food for Muslims, and kosher food as well. Despite his clarifications, his words have angered French Jews. He has reiterated that his policy will be based on both Jewish and Christian values. French Jews’ protests were justified; unlike the case of Muslim immigrants, Jews have lived in France since the post-Second Temple dispersion and are full-fledged French citizens.

A Pragmatist on the Middle East

On the conflicts in the Middle East, Fillon is a pragmatist who favors reaching settlements with pragmatic actors. With the Syrian civil war ongoing since 2011 and Bashar Assad still in power, Fillon favors reaching a settlement with Russia and Iran that can put an end to the slaughter. In his view, American and French helplessness partly account for the fact that all the attempts to oust Assad and end the bloodshed have come to naught. Notably, Fillon worked for the rescue of the Christians in Syria and Iraq, though without great success. He would also like to tighten relations with Iran, but he will take measures including sanctions if and when it turns out that Iran is violating the nuclear agreement it signed.

On the Palestinian issue, undoubtedly Fillon will continue the line of his predecessors. He is in favor of two states for two peoples and of ensuring Israel’s security, but he will seek overall regional agreements and will not impose a settlement that is unacceptable to Israel. He has already internalized the fact that the Obama era has passed, and soon there will be a new president in the White House who sees the Middle East arena completely differently.

Fillon, like Sarkozy, is well acquainted with Israel and the Jewish community. He has visited Israel several times. In his statements and in interviews he has given, as well as a conversation with this author, he repeats that he is a true friend of the State of Israel and appreciative of the values of Judaism.

It is, of course, too early to know whether he will really act accordingly if and when he takes residency in the Élysée Palace next May. François Fillon must first be elected president, and like his predecessors, he will be judged only by his future policy and actions.