After the fallout of Donald Trump and Brexit, it is a relief to note that, in France at least, normal political service is being resumed. The four million French citizens who took part in the 20 November presidential primaries to select a candidate for the broad centre-right, not just one political party, have sent some clear signals.
This was not an anti-establishment vote, if establishment means the president, two former prime ministers, and other experienced ministers who were on the ballot. None of them are insurgent outsiders like Trump or Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK Labour party. Former prime ministers and more senior officials garnered 93.2% of all votes cast. When adding all remaining former ministers, that figure rises to above 98.5%.
Nor was this an anti-Europe vote. None of the top candidates proposed a Brexit-style referendum on the European Union or the euro. The primary was popular and accepted as a sign of a well-functioning democracy. The candidates behaved responsibly. Money was not everywhere. There were no accusations of cheating and the result was immediately accepted. False rumours circulated on social networks, especially against Alain Juppé, but there is gossip on social networks on absolutely all topics these days, and not just in France.
This was a strong anti-corruption vote. Everyone in France knows that there were two candidates, namely former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the former right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) leader Jean-François Copé, against whom there are credible allegations involving police and judicial investigations about campaign funding and internal party election abuse.
Sarkozy will not even make it to the final primary round. He is now finished in French politics. Copé’s defeat was crushing. He was widely perceived in 2012 as stealing the election for president of the UMP from François Fillon – one of the darkest episodes of French centre-right politics during the Fifth Republic. On Sunday ordinary French centre-right voters gave Copé just 0.3% of the vote. As one commentator put it, ‘the good news for him is that he can thank all his voters individually.’
It was a vote for experience, for grey or no hair. The two younger candidates, Bruno Le Maire and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, accrued less than 5% of the vote between them, after having been credited with predictions of close to 20% earlier in the contest.
It was a vote against the cheapest populist appeals of the times. Sarkozy praised Trump and said climate change was not human induced. Le Maire said he would abolish the controversial École nationale d’administration – the training school for high quality French state administrators, which he attended. Voters were not impressed.
Tough pro-market and deficit cutting policies received endorsements. Fillon’s program is quite radical (significantly more radical, in fact, than the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations for France). It is, however, too early to say he embodies a looming Thatcherite revolution. There are a lot of reasons why people voted for him, including getting rid of Sarkozy.
Fillon’s pro-Putin stance and his traditional, Catholic views may yet cost him votes in the final runoff ballot on Sunday 27 November. Much depends on turn-out – if it remains strong, and especially if it is stocked with those from the liberal left who paid €2 for the right to vote in the Republicans primary, Juppé could still win.
On Sunday evening we are likely to know the name of the next president of France. Marine Le Pen has tried to deck herself in the colours of Brexit and Trump, but the chances of a confidante of Trump or Nigel Farage entering the Élysée Palace are very low. If there is one thing certain about France, it is that the country never wants to be a copycat of les Anglo-Saxons.
Jacques Lafitte is founder at Avisa Partners, Brussels, and formerly oversaw the euro dossier in the Cabinet of Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Yves-Thibault de Silguy.