It came as no little surprise when, three years ago, François Fillon accepted my invitation to participate in the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, organised by Britain’s Centre for Policy Studies. Needless to say, no other French politician even bothered to answer the invitations I hardly bothered to send out.
In French political debate, “Thatcher” is used in the same way as “the Vichy regime” – as a label that disqualifies an opponent from office forever. Open and avowed Thatcherites in Paris are a fringe movement of degenerate right-wingers, tolerated purely as a sign of open-mindedness, in the same way as advocates of cannibalism or sado-masochism.
But there Mr Fillon was. All of a sudden, a Gaullist with a fondness for the “French social model” (translation: the transfer of hefty amounts to rent-seeking Baby Boomers) had morphed into an unrepentant free-marketeer, promising to slash taxes and liberalise the labour market with a forcefulness that would make the IMF blush.
While he was no ideologue, Fillon’s experience of the French government machine, not least as prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, had led him – along with his perception of his countrymen’s mood – to the conclusion that it was about time to roll back the frontiers of the state.
Over the past few years, he has assembled a team of like-minded economists and entrepreneurs and put together a detailed program of reforms with a credible implementation timeline.
The plan includes disposing of 500,000 civil servants and cutting public spending by €110 billion. It also covers critical social reforms, such as granting a greater level of autonomy to state schools (a proposal distantly inspired by Britain’s academies) and shaking up the health care system (for example by funding non-essential treatments via private health insurance).
For that, Fillon had been the butt of journalists’ and fellow politicians’ ridicule – until the electorate unexpectedly gave him a sweeping victory in the first round of the primary election for the centre-right Republican party (44 per cent of the vote against 28 per cent for Alain Juppé, with Sarkozy eliminated after coming in a humiliating third).
How did this miracle occur? Because Fillon’s message struck a chord. From the farmer sick of spending a third of his time doing paperwork (according to the latest surveys), to the entrepreneur stifled by regulation, to middle classes strangled by taxes, a popular revolt is starting to emerge. After decades of bureaucratic doziness, could France be starting to roar again?
Anglo-Saxon free-marketeers should not, of course, get carried away. Fillon is certainly no libertarian. A practising Catholic and seasoned conservative politician, his other central message is a pledge to restore “authority”. His campaign has certainly been supported by religious groups : although he promises to preserve the status quo in terms of individual rights, he opposes abortion “on a personal basis”.
Under a Fillon presidency, you clearly won’t see any move towards drug legalisation, for example. Personally, his most provocative sartorial habit consists of wearing a pair of red socks (shades of the cardinals) with his immaculate navy suit.
Family pictures show a background of country castle and well-groomed horses – to the extent that the Left is already delighting in caricaturing him as a backwards provincial squire. And there is a serious question about whether and how Fillon can reconcile promoting more flexibility in the labour market while ruling out more liberty in the way people run their personal lives.
The final round of the primary election will take place on Sunday. Fillon is clearly the front-runner – but there has been a nasty campaign against him by the mainstream media after his surprise victory.
Grumbling civil servants, ageing social democrats and sneering journalists are all rallying against the possibility of a real change.
Yet despite Mr Fillon’s weaknesses on civil rights, reformers of all hues have no choice but to grasp this unique opportunity to put France’s economy back on track.
And for those in Britain, there is the added bonus of mending the relationship between France and… Wales, the birthplace of France’s potential next First Lady.