Thatcher, Reagan, ...Fillon?


During the 1980s, both Britain and the US experienced a free-market revolution under the premierships of Thatcher and Reagan, with taxes being cut, markets deregulated and state-owned companies privatised. However, this free-market wave never really caught on in France. Centre-right politicians briefly tried to import some of these ideas in the 1980s, but were trounced by the Socialist François Mitterrand in the subsequent election. Since then, the centre-right has seen Thatcherite ideas as taboo. However, this may be about to change. On 27th November, François Fillon won the second round of the centre-right Republicans primary, and is now the favourite for the French Presidency next May. In a clear break from the centre-right’s statist past, he has openly said he likes to be compared to Thatcher, which is normally seen as an insult in France.

During the primaries, it appeared that the Republicans had reached a consensus that some economic liberalisation was necessary. All three of the main contenders, Fillon, Sarkozy and Juppé, broadly shared a liberalising agenda. However, Fillon is by far the most radical. He promises that he will curb the power of the unions, end the 35 hour working week and shrink France’s sprawling labour code from over 3,000 pages to just 150. Perhaps most controversial are his plans to shrink the public sector, which accounts for 57% of GDP, by cutting 500,000 civil service jobs.

After years of statist policies which have resulted in rigid labour markets and high unemployment, this economic ‘shock therapy’ could be exactly what the economy needs. Despite it not being a clear vote-winner, these tough measures were backed by a broad spectrum of the 4.4 million people who voted in the primaries, these ranged from the rich, worried about rising public debt, and working-class voters looking for a fresh approach to combat the high unemployment that has plagued France for years.

Based on current polling, Fillon is predicted to win the first round of the Presidential election ahead of Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, Emmanuel Macron, running as an independent centrist, and the Socialist candidate, which is likely to be Manuel Valls, the current Prime Minister. The problem arises when the top two go through to the run off, where Fillon would be likely to face Le Pen. Here, Fillon will have to pick up centrist and left-leaning voters if he is to win, but some in his Republican party believe his radical economic agenda risks going too far, giving an opening to Ms Le Pen.

His agenda completely goes against France’s distrust of free markets and reverence for the state, as well as the tide of anti-globalisation that Le Pen is riding. Leftists have criticised his economic agenda and also his conservative social stance, in particular his pledge to roll back some of the Socialist government’s gay marriage law. This could mean that many on the left would abstain if this run-off were to occur. Also, Fillon gives an opportunity to Ms Le Pen to use her protectionist platform to court the working class vote, particularly in the north and east of the country. She is already beginning to warn that Mr Fillon is out to “destroy” the French social safety-net.

Whether Fillon can seize the Élysée Palace depends on whether Macron and Valls supporters would prefer him over a Far-Right President, which is what commentators are expecting. But a lot could still go awry for Fillon in the five months before the elections. Once in power, in order to emulate Thatcher and Reagan, he will have to take on the many vested interests in France that favour its current statist economic structure. As shown by the mass protests sparked by the current Socialist’s government’s modest attempted labour reforms, this will be easier said than done.