After the major earthquake of Brexit, 6.5 on the Richter scale, and the megaquake of Trump, at least 7.5, the results of yesterday’s “primary of the right and center” in France have to count as a minor aftershock. Yet even this small tremor is potentially an ominous sign that the tectonic plates of politics in the major Western democracies are still shifting about unpredictably, with major changes in the landscape still to come.
What happened yesterday is this: François Fillon, who served as prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012, defeated his former boss along with five other candidates in the first round of the primary to choose the candidate of the center-right Republican party. The upset was stunning, because for most of the campaign, polls had shown Fillon running fourth in the field behind favorite Alain Juppé, also a former prime minister (under Jacques Chirac), Sarkozy, and newcomer Bruno Le Maire.
The polls were not even particularly close until the final weeks of the campaign. Juppé’s lead seemed more than comfortable. Conventional wisdom had it that Juppé was the “safe” choice, the candidate most likely to halt the rise of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who is expected to top all other candidates in the first round of France’s two-round presidential election. Juppé was thought to be conservative enough to appeal to the base of the Republican party but centrist enough to be acceptable to many left-wing voters, who would vote for Juppé not only in the second round of the presidential race but also cross over to vote for him in the right-wing primary, which is allowed in France. The polls seemed to confirm this.
Then Sarkozy began to close the gap with Juppé, who had served for a time as his foreign minister. Perhaps it was because Juppé is old (71, compared with Sarkozy’s 61). Perhaps it was because Sarkozy had begun to talk tough, tougher even that Marine Le Pen on issues of insecurity, identity, immigration, and Islam—what blogger Arun Kapil has dubbed “the four I’s”. Or perhaps it was because Juppé’s platform seemed more rightist than centrist on economic and governance issues, disappointing left-wing voters who had hoped he would differentiate himself more from the other Republican candidates.
(Credit: Bernard BISSON/JDD/SIPA/1505311317 - Sipa via AP Images)