Who is Francois Fillon and can he really beat Marine Le Pen?

His exoticisms – racing in Le Mans, climbing mountains and marrying a Welsh girl – will get plenty of play in the press in the coming months. Europe will heave a sigh of relief if he is able to beat the Front National 

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The Independent Online

After the triumph of populist insurgency politics with Trump and Brexit – and on the left with Spain’s Podemos and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – France has opted for a return to traditional professional politics.

Forget the headlines about François Fillon being a Thatcherite revolutionary or someone who will transform France into a shining neoliberal model nation. He is middle of the road, provincial middle class and if the French had a term like middle England, he would be viewed as “middle France”.

He was first elected to the National Assembly in 1981 well before Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé and has done almost everything there is to be done French politics – deputy, senator, minister, prime minister – and has done all of those jobs well and professionally.

His big advantage is that he is not a graduate of ENA – the legendary training school for the French elite. His father was a notaire – one of the country solicitors who control much of French provincial business – and Fillon has stayed outside the Paris world all of his life.

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He is not a compelling speaker. I heard him deliver a keynote address at a conference on Europe in Nancy earlier this year and, to put it mildly, electrify the audience he did not. But it was solid stuff, rather like a speech by Philip Hammond or Alistair Darling.

He was a French delegate to the Nato parliamentary assembly and his belief that Putin has to be factored into solutions in the Middle East reflects both the general Russophilia in French ruling circles – especially those linked to Gaullist tradition. It will also align him with Berlin, which is looking for a way out of the Putinophobia of recent years.

His labour market reform is focused on the bête noire of French employers – the state-enforced 35 hour week – which was adopted by the socialist government of Lionel Jospin in 1998.

In truth, it has not worked – it was based on the classic lump of labour fallacy that there is a fixed amount of work in each economy and if you reduce the hours worked that must logically create more jobs.

In fact, since the 35-hour week was legislated, France has lived with high unemployment, especially among the young. Different French governments have tried everything – except flexibility. French trade unions have the lowest membership in Western Europe, but an enormous capacity to mobilise to stop any reforms.

Now the moment may have arrived when France is ready to move up an economic gear even at the price of burying old taboos (such as the 35 hour week).

However, as prime minister under Sarkozy between 2007 and 2012, Fillon was presented with a detailed report, written by Jacques Attali, listing 37 reforms needed to get the economy going.

Fillon did nothing. One of the big reforms was to break up the cosy cartels in provincial France that regulate planning, house sales, and business start-ups. That would mean taking on the notaires – and it is far from clear whether Fillon is up for this.

His exoticisms – racing in the Le Mans 24 Hours, climbing mountains and marrying a Welsh girl – will get plenty of play in the press in the coming months. There is no doubt that he can beat Marine Le Pen – and Europe will heave a sigh of relief.

She has tried to present herself as the Brexit-Trump candidate in France, but if there is one thing that does not work in French politics, it is to make an offer based on what the Americans and English do. Marine Le Pen’s endorsement by Nigel Farage is a viper’s embrace and France and Fillon will hug Germany ever closer and back more, not less, into Europe.

The French socialists have a Fillon in their midst in the form of the current prime minister, Manuel Valls, who uses similar language on Islamism and on the need for labour market reform. But Valls will not indulge the Catholic and homophobic language of Fillon, which turns off metro-liberal France.

If Valls runs, then the French presidential contest will get very exciting indeed. Otherwise President Fillon will show that traditional professional politics still has legs to it.

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe and has written a biography of François Mitterrand. He writes for French newspapers