The François Fillon Experiment
Among all the nice surprises of the beginning of the Trump Administration—dubious business conflicts, a fraud settlement, intimations of Muslim registries and the rest—it might be restful, at least temporarily, to turn toward France. The main subject of conversation here in America, as there in France, has been the rise of the extreme right-wing Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie and, like him, the leader of the National Front, who seems all too likely to achieve the last victory in the Terrible Trifecta, the funeral pyre of liberalism: Brexit, Trump, Le Pen.
But an odd thing happened in France on Sunday. In the Republican (i.e., what we would call conservative) primary, François Fillon, a former Prime Minister who is trying to combine free-market rhetoric with reactionary social ideas, shocked everyone by coming out in front of the former President Nicolas Sarkozy and another former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, who had been the heavy favorite for the past year. (And was thus soon irresistibly compared to Hillary Clinton as a case of overly sanguine expectations producing an uninspiring underperformance.)
The primary is an entirely new thing in France, one of those occasions when the French seize on an American invention, like the detective movie or the drugstore, just as it’s showing wear and tear at home. And Fillon, at first glance, is exactly The Problem with French politics. He has fine silver hair and a serious manner—it was much talked of when he refused to laugh at a Belgian satirist who routinely mocks French politicians on a television news show—and has written a book and has been around forever. Before last Sunday, he seemed to most to be one of the permanent carousel horses of French politics, going round and round in the same small enclosure.
But he won by trying to do what no one has yet been able to do, and that is to co-opt, or to enwrap, an electorate tempted by the extreme right, and to bring those voters into a rational or respectable right-wing party. Fillon’s attempt to do this involves positing an equation—in the past always unsuccessful, indeed almost taboo in French politics—between free-market economics (called “liberalism” in France) and a decidedly Roman Catholic-accented conservatism. He likes to talk about valeurs: moral qualities. He is for massive liberal reform in French labor laws and public policy—but he is also, if not hostile to abortion and other kinds of social liberalism, at least not as accepting of them as the great mass of centrist French politicians are. Married to an Englishwoman (the ceremony was performed in Wales), he has five children and was backed by those who oppose mariage pour tous, i.e., gay marriage.
In America, this is a standard-issue conservative: in love with the power of the free market and still obsessed with traditional values. We have—or had, until a new chaotic form of conservatism emerged—hardly any other kind. What’s fascinating is that, as this sort of conservatism emerges as a novelty in France, we see that there is nothing inevitable or natural about it. In France, the only way that free-market economics have ever become popular is if they’re tinctured with “Bonapartism”—offered as big medicine by some very strong charismatic central leader. That’s exactly what Charles de Gaulle did with his “indictative planning”—a very French form of centralized free-market economics, where the central government set goals and the entrepreneurial economy was set loose to pursue them. It helped extend a period of still longed-for economic growth, the trente glorieuses. (How much of the glory depended on the specific actions of the government, and how much on the special circumstances of that era in Western history, is still debated; we debate the same thing here about the middle-class affluence of the Eisenhower-Kennedy years.)
Fillon certainly has no tincture of Bonapartism—he just isn’t up to that mark. But Sarkozy, who very much did—albeit, as I wrote at the time of his election, more on the smaller model of Napoleon III, the Emperor of the eighteen-sixties, than on the original kind—lost, and Fillon does have a strong nostalgia for a lost France. There is nothing Trumpian about him—he might recall to us instead the failed conservative alternatives to Trumpism: the Republicans who struggled and failed to find some combination of ideas that would immunize the Party against Trumpism, as the French Republican conservatives seek to immunize their party against Le Penism. Allowing old-French nationalist fears to have their voice while still articulating them within a broadly liberal-democratic framework—it’s what many tried and failed to do here. The lesson seemed to be that you have either your nationalist politics or your liberalism, but not both at once.
Will the formula succeed in France? Nobody knows, of course—it’s not inevitable even that Fillon will defeat the Clintonized Juppé in the second round of the primary, which takes place on Sunday. One of the great oddities of recent French history is that former President François Mitterrand did a brilliant job in emasculating the old French Communist Party, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, by absorbing many of its members in a kind of strangling bear hug. It has always been the dream of the respectable right in France to do something similar to the National Front: steal its voters by emphasizing “security” while avoiding the party’s Vichyite extremes. Given the almost absurd weakness of the incumbent Socialist President François Hollande, the final configuration in the French general election, next spring, is likely to be a run-off between an extreme right-winger, Marine Le Pen, and a moderate right-winger, Fillon or just possibly Juppé—rather than, as in our pained case, between an unhinged right-winger and a cautious centrist progressive. Will it work out any better for the French than it did for us? We’ll see.