In the Republicans presidential nominations Francois Fillon reigned triumphant over his opponent, Alain Juppé, in their race for the top seat of France’s centre-right party. There is a mystery surrounding this radical dark horse that has clearly enticed voters, but should his victory and the changing tide of French politics fill the progressives among us with hope or despair?
Having entered politics at the age of 27 as a staunch Gaullist, Fillon became the National Assembly’s youngest minister. His path to the top may have been very slow but it seems he has never forgotten his strong Gaullist conservative and nationalist views. Described by his critics as a “dangerous right-winger”, Fillon is undoubtedly more radical than the candidates he has just beaten in the primaries. Openly voicing his admiration for Margaret Thatcher is a very bold tactic for the potential President of a typically socialist country in which Thatcherites are few and far between.
He is known for his traditional, Catholic values on abortion, gay marriage and women’s rights, which critics fear are contrary to a progressive Western society. Most importantly, as a radical right-winger, Fillon is known for his Euroscepticism: he voted against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 that brought in the Euro to France. With the term ‘Frexit’ starting to be thrown around by the French media, this weekend’s victory for Fillon could be a turning point for French and European politics.
Polls suggest that due to the current turmoil of the French Left, Fillon is likely to face Marine Le Pen’s far right party, the National Front, in a two-horse election. Although polls suggest that she would finish a reassuringly distant second behind Fillon, these methods of political indicators have been proved as majorly flawed on two occasions in recent months. Whichever way the election looks like it could go, this political situation should send shudders down the spines of European Union supporters.
A victory for either the Republicans or the National Front could be bad news for the EU. Fillon sees it as overly regulatory, bureaucratic, and unaccountable. But, whilst he views may be well-founded, the institution is unlikely to change. A victory for him could see a ‘Frexit’ movement gain momentum which would in turn bolster support for nationalist movements elsewhere in Europe. Fillon, upon election, could use the timely Brexit negotiations to his own benefit. If, however, Le Pen wins in May and calls a referendum in which France vote to leave the EU, it could spell au revoir to the EU all together.
We are heading into an era of protectionist politics. The terrorist attacks that have shaken France in the last couple of years as well as the huge influx of migrants into Europe has led to countries turning their backs on the EU and the idea of working collectively more generally. It is clear that during these times of panic, voters have felt comforted by the protectionist rhetoric of speakers like Le Pen and Nigel Farage in their promises to solve the country’s issues by closing borders and reinforcing national identity.
Have we not learned our lesson from history? The 1920s and 1930s saw a proliferation of far right parties in Europe, all with nationalist discourse not that dissimilar to that of UKIP and the National Front. Not only did this period end in a catastrophic, devastating World War, it also caused a global recession as protectionism obstructed the notion of working collectively to repair the damage inflicted by WWI. This is not to say that Le Pen and Farage can be equated to the fascist dictators of this period, but bear in mind that Winston Churchill was regarded as eccentric for warning of the dangers that Adolf Hitler posed during his rise to power. It would be naïve to pretend that the significant growth of far right parties all over the continent since the Brexit campaign began will not have adverse effects somewhere down the line.
In terms of ideology, is the European Union not a symbol of how the world should want to be? Despite its less-than perfect functioning in practice, should we not be striving to work collectively for a greater good, with uninhibited trade, shared information and decision making? The end of WWII saw the formation of bodies such as the EU and NATO which encompass this goal. It seems that right wing nationalist movements are undoing the progress that has been made, and in doing so are taking a step back in time.
Fillon’s victory last weekend means that France’s era of radical right-wing government has already begun. Whichever way the French presidential election goes next spring, it is certain to be a pivotal moment in European politics.