Birth of a Nation
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.