8 December 2016

The result of the French centre-right primaries last month represented another surprise election. The favourite to win, Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé, came a distant second to former Prime Minister François Fillon, who swept to victory with 66.5% of the votes in the decisive run-off. Compared to moderate Juppé, Fillon projects a different face of the French centre-right. He has put forward a reformist agenda that is economically liberal and socially conservative: among his headline proposals are plans to cut the public sector workforce by half a million over the five-year term, end the 35-hour working week, and reduce non-EU immigration by establishing quotas and restricting access to services. During the primary, he positioned himself tightly between the “soft” centre-right, represented by Juppé, and the hard-right, projected by former President Nicolas Sarkozy – who quite clearly chose to reach out to Front National sympathisers. But Fillon’s free-market programme, defined as economic “shock-therapy,” would be a radical change for France. This creates an interesting dynamic, both for the national political landscape ahead of presidential elections next year, as well as for the position France takes in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

How does Fillon’s nomination affect the lead-up to elections next year?

Polls predict a run-off between Fillon and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right Front National, in the final round of presidential elections next May. Yet, with five months to go, there is still a lot in play. We are already beginning to witness a gear-shift on the Left, with Manuel Valls resigning as Prime Minister after announcing his bid for presidency earlier this week, four days after the unprecedented decision by President François Hollande not to run for a second term.

While many remain sceptical that the Left have a serious chance of reaching the final round, the surprise nomination of a conservative liberal candidate on the centre-right may offer them some hope. Fillon’s election has created space for a leftist candidate to enter the fray: while socialist voters may have warmed to Juppé’s “soft” centrist agenda, they might feel less incentivised to rally around Fillon, with his socially conservative proposals to restrict adoption rights of gay couples and his personal opposition to abortion. However, polls do not yet appear to reflect this new opening: the likely candidate to capitalise on this change – independent contender and former Socialist Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron – is predicted to take third position with around 15% of the vote at first round. Not only is he predicted to trail behind Fillon (forecasted to win with 30%) and Le Pen (24%), but there appears no shift in his ratings yet, compared with before Fillon’s nomination. Add to this the French Left’s longstanding challenge of fragmentation, with several rivals from right across the centre-left spectrum once again expected to stand in the elections, their chances of any one candidate receiving enough backing in the first round to secure a place in the presidential run-off remain bleak.

Fillon’s election will also have an impact on the Right of the political spectrum. Had Juppé won the nomination, a run-off with the far right would likely have meant an attack of his “soft” positions on immigration, secularism and Europe as unambitious and ineffective. Yet Fillon’s stance on these issues is nearer to Le Pen’s: he has echoed the FN leader in proposing “taking back control of immigration,” in declaring “in France, there is a problem linked with Islam,” and in celebrating his nomination as an opportunity to achieve a “sovereign France in a Europe respectful of nations.” That said, if Le Pen has little room to distinguish herself on social and identity policies, she will no doubt challenge Fillon on his economic programme. Indeed, her campaign is now likely to focus on her protectionist policies, channelling the rhetoric of anti-austerity and anti-globalisation politics, and positioning herself as the natural candidate of ordinary workers.

For now at least, if polls are to be believed, Fillon remains the favourite to take the presidency next May. So what might his election mean for the upcoming Brexit negotiations and how would it affect the UK’s ability to form coalitions of support during exit talks?

What partner would Fillon be at the Brexit negotiation table?

There may be tendency to assume that a liberal French President would be more willing to accommodate Britain’s trade interests and support a preferential UK-EU trade agreement following Britain’s withdrawal. All the more so as Fillon has instantly built an ‘Anglophile’ reputation in the UK press for making no secret of his admiration for Margaret Thatcher’s legacy and being married to a Welsh woman.

However, Fillon has been open about the serious implications that Brexit will have on the UK-EU relationship. In a parliamentary session at the Assemblée Nationale shortly after the UK referendum vote, Fillon said, “The divorce should be calm but it should be rapid… You cannot have left the house, have stopped paying bills, and [still] benefit from the roof, the room and board.” He went on to suggest that while the EU waits for Britain to trigger Article 50, “British Members of the [European] Parliament should no longer participate in votes, and their civil servants in Brussels [should no longer take part] in decisions.” While Fillon does recognise areas for successful strategic cooperation, he is unwilling to compromise on key sectors of British interest, saying, “We can negotiate a good association agreement…We should maintain and deepen defence agreements with Great Britain. But there is no reason to leave them the European financial passport, and the Eurozone should recover the clearing of its currency.”

Perhaps most important to retain from his speech to French parliamentarians is his view that Brexit has greater implications for the future of European integration and cooperation than it does for specific negotiations with the UK. Indeed, Fillon’s focus in Europe will likely be on establishing a new foundation for cooperation within the Eurozone – meaning that conciliatory talks with Britain might not be a top priority. Much of his speech focused on how the referendum vote provides the opportunity for the EU to reset its priorities, saying, “A Europe of markets, of tourists and of a single currency is no longer enough. This Europe threatens to disappear if it is not at the same time a Europe of security, a Europe that controls immigration; if in this domain – just as for the economy – it is not a Europe that protects.”

Should Fillon take the presidency next May, although he is probably the most accommodating candidate on offer, Britain should not expect a compromising French partner in Brexit negotiations.