CAMBRIDGE – François Fillon, a discreet and loyal former prime minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, is now the right-wing Republicans’ official nominee for the French presidential election this spring. In the party’s primary last November, early polling had predicted a win for Alain Juppé, a prime minister under Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and had put Fillon a distant third behind Sarkozy himself (who was seeking to stage a political comeback). When Fillon pulled out a surprise victory, many observers began to compare him to Donald Trump.
Fillon is a soft-spoken, reserved, and deeply devout Roman Catholic who lives in a small castle in his native province of Sarthe. He exhibits none of the brashness, vulgarity, and self-adoration currently emanating from Trump Tower in New York. But Fillon’s supporters have three things in common with Trump’s: rejection of liberal identity politics; opposition to “expertise” as a decisive component of politics and policymaking; and anxiety about loss of power and status in a country they once dominated.
Fillon’s success can be traced back to 2013, when thousands of demonstrators nationwide took to the streets to protest against a law legalizing same-sex marriage – “Marriage for all” – which President François Hollande’s justice minister, Christiane Taubira, had introduced in the National Assembly. The “Manif pour tous” (“March for all”) was the first time in many years that French Catholics had come together specifically as Catholics to demonstrate against the government.
The law ultimately passed, and no one is proposing that it be repealed. Instead, Fillon wants to make it harder for same-sex couples to adopt children. Still, the march had a massive turnout that surprised even its participants; it set the stage for Fillon to win the primary – and, judging by current polls, to become the next French president.