Birth of a Nation

Jeremy Harding

The congenial Alain Juppé lost by a huge margin to François Fillon – roughly 66 to 34 – in the French centre-right's final round of primaries yesterday, which also saw a higher turnout than in round one. The economic policies of the candidates were close: thin down the state sector, loosen labour laws, cut taxes. Fillon’s was the harsher – and more radical – approach but the severity of his social programme was also crucial, and Marine Le Pen will be hard pressed to beat him next year. His is a face we will have to get used to.

Fillon grew up in Le Mans in the Pays de la Loire. He has rummaged profitably in these provincial origins for his rehashed Catholic pastoral, peppered when the occasion is right with anti-metropolitan sentiment. His vision of public finances spiralling out of control – 'Argentina … Ireland, Greece and Portugal' – and an arduous path ahead played well with right-wing voters. Juppé, with his air of urbanity and tolerance, has been trampled like an elderly mouse in a feedlot.

The two most pungent ingredients of Fillon's cultural conservatism are fear of Islam and the sanctity of the traditional French family. The first, more contagious of the two played heavily against Juppé, as strong anti-Islamic feelings on the far-right were taken up by Nicolas Sarkozy – eliminated in round one – and leached into Fillon’s support. The Islamophobic gripe with Juppé dates from his willingness to sign up to a Muslim cultural centre in Bordeaux; the project has limped along for eight years without consequence. The idea of a large mosque with add-ons, including an exhibition hall where shows would be held in partnership with the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, has focused local 'secularist' sentiment, leading to accusations that Juppé may as well be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. (The imam, if this project ever came good, would probably be Tareq Oubrou, a liberal reformer affiliated to a French Islamic organisation whose parent is the Muslim Brotherhood.)

Juppé's minders have been alert to the electoral danger of the mosque project for a while, and done their best to downplay it. Juppé, they've explained, thinks people of all religions should have somewhere to pray. The far right doesn't share this view; nor do the new regiments marching against Muslims under the banner of secularism. And in the course of the campaign, local animosity seemed to go nationwide. It was useless for Juppé to point out that he opposes foreign funding for this or any similar project, wants Francophone-only preaching in mosques, or that he told Tariq Ramadan he was unwelcome when he came to speak in Bordeaux in March.

Last week, Juppé's entourage denounced the vehemence of the penumbral internet campaign against him, all of it more or less Islamophobic. In this space seething with bad feeling, he is referred to as Ali Juppé. On the idea that the mayor of Bordeaux is soft on Islam, Fillon had the work done for him by extremists who knew how to get the word out.

Family values required more effort from the Fillon camp. To listen to Fillon, you might think the French family takes precedence over the republic. Certainly its roots go deeper: 'France,' Fillon told a meeting last year in his former constituency in the Loire region, 'was not born in 1789!'

Where are the ruins of this Bethlehem where the miracle birth of the nation occurred? Hard to say, though Fillon is opposed to miracle births of the modern kind: he considers surrogate pregnancy an abomination while assisted pregnancies will be allowed for heterosexual couples only. The Catholic family will be a work of nature, and Fillon's France, if he wins, will be reimagined as a theme park of heterosexual orthodoxy dominated by a prospering bourgeosie with tax relief and thriving nurseries. It will be a staunch Putin ally with a budget deficit within 3 per cent of its GDP and a 'national narrative' to be taught in history classes. Though with promised cuts of half a million public sector jobs, the teachers may be thin on the ground.


  • 29 November 2016 at 6:22am
    farthington says:
    Fillon is appealing to the large mob that never got over the 1905 loi de la séparation des Églises et l'État.
    The problem with Islam in France is not that it runs counter to the sanctified laicité but that it exposes the running inconsistency between the laicité mantra and a latent omniprsent Catholicism.
    If the laicité storm troopers want to do something useful, they could work on taking over all faith-based schools, something that proved impossible in 1905. Now that would be a revolution.
    There's a comparable bipolar schizophrenia in Italy where one can seemingly be simultaneously a Communist and a Catholic. What?

    • 29 November 2016 at 5:04pm
      John Cowan says: @ farthington
      In John Steinbeck’s 1957 novella The Short Reign of Pippin IV, in order to break a political deadlock, the various French political parties of the day[1] resolve to restore the monarchy, leaving it to the various royalist parties[2] to decide which monarchy to restore. They are equally deadlocked, and finally the leader of the Merovingian party puts forward the name of Pippin Arnulf Héristal, an amateur astronomer and legitimate descendant of Pippin II (the father of Charles Martel), who then takes the throne as Pippin IV. Unfortunately for the politicians, he takes the job seriously.... The book is a delightful satire on the French, the English, and especially the Americans.

      [1] The Conservative Radicals, the Radical Conservatives, the Royalists, the Right Centrists, the Left Centrists, the Christian Atheists, the Christian Christians, the Christian Communists, the Proto-Communists, the Neo-Communists, the Socialists, and the Communists (these last divided into the Stalinists, Trotskyists, Khrushchevniks, and Bulganinians).

      [2] Vercingetorians, Merovingians, Capetians, Burgundians, Orléanists, Bourbons, Bonapartists, Angevins, and Caesarians.

      Note specially the sixth and eighth parties.

    • 29 November 2016 at 7:37pm
      Tanvyeboyo says: @ farthington
      You speak about the 'the large mob that never got over the 1905 loi de la séparation des Églises et l’État.'. We had these people marching peacefully in the streets some time ago and they turned out to be not such a large mob at all. I don't like their opinions but we know about 'mobs' over here and they were not one. They have lost the main argument about Gay Marriage and I doubt if Fillon can leverage any sympathy he has for them into greater electoral support. Even the appalling Le Pen woman is not anti-Gay Marriage.
      You really have to peer deeply into the empty depths of Catholic churches to find much trace of 'omnipresent Catholicism'. It's not exactly a state religion like Anglicanism on the nearby island. Of course you can be a Communist and a Catholic, and not just in Italy. Jesus of Nazareth, a well-known rabble-rouser in his time, over-turned the merchants' tables at the Temple. Sort of early-Occupy move that. I thought of Him once as as I saw a protest arouned St Paul's in the City of iniquity. Jesus was trumped by populist-nationalist Barnabbas who pleased the mob of that time.
      Fillon is another right-wing, mainstream candidate promising rupture with the unreformable top-heavy State. None has delivered on such promises since 1945. He deserves the right to state his case for reform. Emmanuel Macron on the centre-left will state a similar case for pro-business reform and argue for balance with social justice. Neither Fillon nor the French electorate is going to go the full-Thatcher nearly 40 years after she started her march to power. We now have a chance that next year’s presidential election will end in a run-off between two serious-minded, economically literate candidates.
      All that ‘Ali Juppé’ and the ‘elderly mouse in a feedlot’ stuff is amusing but that was Sarkozy’s parting volley of shots. Fillon, not Juppé, has consigned Sarko to history and, hopefully, we will soon have seen the last of Hollande who can then devote all of his time to his mistresses. Fillon's boring attachment to Penelope will be less entertaining but he might be a much better president.

  • 30 November 2016 at 6:02pm
    Gibbon says:
    A bit complacent, I think Jeremy. Somehow it seems Fillon's election has seen Le Pen's chances downgraded. Indeed, even the Front Nationale seem a little confused at how best to respond. The confusion will not last long - Fillon's leaves the centre, let alone the left, hardly any reason to turn up in the second round whatsoever.

    Alain Juppe had clear rhetorical and cultural advantages over Fillon for centrists and the left. Increasingly these are more important dimensions of political affiliation, but even in the economic sphere I feel the centre and left could have held their nose. The disparity between him and Fillon is underplayed in your piece. The latter seems to almost relish comparisons with Thatcher.

    To say the least, this is dangerous and completely misreads the nature of recent anti-establishment insurgencies. Yes, Donald Trump was the change candidate next to Clinton's continuity. However, the only change that is winning, from Corbyn all the way through to the other end of the traditional political spectrum with Trump/Brexit, is 'change' that offers a return to a treasured cultural milieu of the past. The emotional appeal of 'Making America Great Again' is, in this sense, not a great deal different to 'taking the Labour Party back to its roots'. For both Labour activists and white working class Americans, the past is a happier country.

    This 'golden age' impulse both explains Fillon's victory and his vulnerability. You spell out very well his forays into France's cultural inheritance. Yet crucially, Thatcherism - a cursed Anglo-Saxon import - has no history whatsoever in France and indeed France has always counter-posed itself against it. The change Fillon offers here is change in the truest sense and it is therefore an open goal for Le Pen who will most surely label it wholly 'un-French'. This critique will be added to all the usual bogeyman - liberals, establishment politicians, Muslims, immigrants - that explain why blue collar French workers are not getting their fair share. And like Trump and Brexit before her, it is a message that will fish more successfully in the conventional, working class left pool than the conventional right. Fillon's economic agenda gives her a point of difference to unify what was previously a more unstable coalition.

    Worse still, to defeat Le Pen will requires the mobilisation of a broad, rainbow coalition straddling the centre-right all the way to the left. They could have swallowed Juppe, but Fillon? Will they really turn-out for Fillon, when they didn't turn out for Clinton and Remain?

    Perhaps Macron can find a way but I fear France is way too scared and scarred for a Trudeau-Obama-lite message of hope. The socialists are finished, perhaps forever.

    Another Republic stands on the brink. Le Pen will win.

  • 1 December 2016 at 7:29pm
    Anaximander says:
    If Juppé stood as an independent he might just make it to the second round, as the left has put up no one more credible than Montebourg (worth, what, 14% at best?), and Fillon's success so far has not depended so much on his actual regressive Catho-laïcité -- and contestable austerian economics (like Macron's) as on the huge ramp in social media by those who marched against gay marriage etc.

    The Répugnants' Primary turnout was described as "high", a little-noticed media bias because there's never been one before, so it was meaningless.

    So all from the centre to the left have nowhere to go. It'll take an enormous clothes peg for them to vote Fillon, yet they want to do something to keep Le Pen out. (Mélenchon will scarcely do it either: see Montebourg above.)

    Even so, many of all ages are disaffected by the system, as elsewhere, so turnout will be low, which usually benefits fanatics.

    The FN is clearly two parties: in Nord/Pas-de-Calais, it affects a worker-friendly stance, with genuinely socialist economics wrapped up in anti-immigrant rhetoric. This is not the message down south, where its historic (and formative) anti-semiticism is now replaced by Moslem-hatred -- BUT free-market economics always. Much of the antisemitism (see J-M Le Pen passim) was fuelled precisely by an imaginary rivalry for control of financial levers.