What to make of Francois Fillon

For almost as long as Power Line has been around, I have bemoaned the fact that France never produced a successful political leader willing to push Thatcherite/Reaganite economic policies. When Nicolas Sarkozy began to emerge, I held some hope that he might take France in that direction. However, I never really thought he’d take it far, and he didn’t.

With Francois Fillon now in charge of France’s conservative party, there is reason for greater hope. Writing in the City Journal, Fred Siegel describes the deeply Catholic Fillon as “a social conservative with liberal economic views.” Siegel means “liberal” in the old-fashioned sense. Fillon believes in free markets. He’s he closest thing to a Thatcherite I can recall seeing in a leading French politician.

For years, I have also bemoaned France’s immigration policy and its unwillingness to tackle the problem of Islamic extremism and separatism within French borders. Sarkozy made a run at improving French policy is this regard, but sometimes chose the wrong targets.

Fillon takes a hard line on immigration and militant Islam. He is, in the words of an unhappy E.J. Dionne, “a critic of multiculturalism and what he sees as Muslim encroachment on French identity.”

Sarkozy’s hard line appeared to hurt him in the 2012 election, just as Mitt Romney’s views on illegal immigration hurt him that year. But that was before a wave of Islamic inspired violence shook France up.

France is now so shaken that Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing National Front party, is considered likely to make the run-off (i.e., the final two) in the upcoming presidential election. Nor is it considered certain that she would lose a run-off.

By making Fillon its champion, the conservative party arguably maximizes the chance of defeating Le Pen. There is room to Fillon’s right on immigration and Islam, but not nearly as much as there would have been if Fillon had lost out to former prime minister Alain Juppe, the moderate whom most expected to become the conservative party candidate.

However, Siegel suggests that Le Pen might put together a formidable left-right coalition in the run-off. He writes:

Fillon’s Thatcherite economic policy will no doubt push France’s vast array of public-sector trade unionists—and what remains of the industrial working-class voters—into the arms of Marine Le Pen, who could merge as the de facto left-wing candidate (if such terms still have any meaning).

The many millions who either work for government or are the recipient of corporatist benefits might quietly support Le Pen’s nationalism rather than risk losing their privileges.

I have enough difficult predicting the outcome of U.S. presidential elections without venturing into French elections. For what it’s worth, however, I like Fillon’s chances.

Finally, I’ll turn to what I find troubling about Fillon — his stance on Russia and, relatedly, the U.S. Andrew Stuttaford at NRO reports that Fillon has called for lifting sanctions on Russia and for partnering with Moscow in an effort to curtail immigration and terrorism. He is friendly with Putin.

Stuttaford quotes Benjamin Haddad of the Hudson Institute who says:

All over Europe, Putinism has emerged as an ideological alternative to globalism, the E.U., etc. [Putin is seen as a] a bulwark for conservative values — a strongman against gay marriage, immigration, Islam.

It’s largely a domestic phenomenon, rather than the reflection of a strategic debate over the relationship with Moscow.

If the tilt towards Putin reflects domestic politics rather than strategic thinking, the election of a Fillon (or a Trump) may be sufficient to overcome knee-jerk affinity for Putin. Arguably, we’re seeing this play out in the Trump transition with the president-elect’s selection of Generals Mattis and Flynn and his flirtation with Mitt Romney who presciently viewed Russia as a major geopolitical foe.

Nonetheless, it’s a pity that, as Stuttaford says, the European elites handed Putin an advantage through the overreach of the “European project,” which has “long since become disconnected from popular consent, commonsense, or even basic competence[.]”

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