Can Fillon Beat Le Pen?

CAMBRIDGE – In the French Republican party’s presidential primary on Sunday, François Fillon soundly defeated frontrunner Alain Juppé, winning close to 67% of the votes.

Two weeks ago, a landslide victory for the apparent underdog seemed out of the question. It had long been expected that Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux and a former prime minister under President Jacques Chirac, would beat the other frontrunner, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a second-round runoff. Instead, Fillon, a former prime minister under Sarkozy, emerged from the first round with a commanding lead, winning 44% of the vote. The outcome was a humiliating one for Sarkozy, who received just a little over 20% support, and effectively ended his political career.

For many observers, the vote invoked the specter of June’s Brexit referendum and US President-elect Donald Trump’s victory earlier this month. Opinion polls placing Fillon as a distant third were proven wrong, partly because many voters seem to have made up their minds just days before the vote. Social media were also credited, again, with playing a key role. In the last debates before the vote, Fillon presented himself as a credible alternative to Juppé and Sarkozy.

With incumbent President François Hollande’s approval ratings below 5% – the lowest ever for a French president – the big question now is whether Fillon can beat far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in May 2017. Juppé was seen as a sufficiently “soft” candidate, who would provide an alternative to Le Pen for left-wing voters. Fillon, however, is much further to the right than Juppé, which means that left-wing voters might not see much difference between him and Le Pen, and could demand that a center-left third candidate enter the fray.