During his five-year term, President Nicolas Sarkozy grabbed headlines for both his controversial policies and his polarizing persona. In the stoic and often-bland world of French politics, Sarkozy was not merely an anomaly – he was an outlier. In many ways, his defeat in 2012 by the uncharismatic François Hollande – who made his “normal” demeanor a key electoral asset – was sown well before he even stepped into the Elysée Palace.
When Nicolas Sarkozy first broke onto the national scene as the ambitious mayor of Neuilly-Sur-Seine, an elegant western suburb of Paris, his style was lauded for its freshness and authenticity. The ebullient Sarkozy shattered the traditional banality of French politicians – contributing to his meteoric rise from mayor to President of the Republic. Despite his considerable charisma and charm, Sarkozy’s personality quickly alienated and polarized not only from the political class, but the electorate as a whole. Many in the French public viewed with disdain his penchant for tailored suits, expensive watches, and lavish vacations. While his supermodel wife solicited admiration from the international press, the sentiment in France was that of a President detached from the realities of every day life.
Sarkozy’s character was both his greatest asset and his fatal flaw, yet throughout his five years in power, his mild mannered Prime Minister, François Fillon, tempered his excessive effervescence. While Sarkozy was audacious and ostentatious, Fillon was cautious and reserved. The governing tandem complemented each other beautifully, despite the very public distaste that existed between the two men.
By design, French Prime Ministers are expendable. They carry out the controversial reforms while the President assumes an almost regal position – detached from the violence and controversy of day-to-day politics. When divisive issues are met with resistance from the public or the legislature, Prime Ministers will resign – effectively shielding the Presidency of any criticism. For this reason, Prime Ministers tend to have a relatively short shelf life. Since the inception of the Fifth Republic, there have been 21 Prime Ministers, compared to merely 7 Presidents; a staggering three Prime Ministers per President. In his 3 years in office, François Hollande is already on his second head of government.
Among the plethora of politicians who once occupied the seat of Prime Minister at the Hôtel Matignon, François Fillon stands out as being the only person to have served concurrently for the entire term of a President. Additionally, Fillon is the second longest serving Prime Minister in the history of the French Republic trailing only Georges Pompidou – Charles de Gaulle’s longtime Prime Minister and eventual successor in the Presidency.
Fillon’s longevity was hardly a foregone conclusion. Indeed, there was no love lost between Fillon and Sarkozy during their five years in power. The two men hailed from different wings of the center-right UMP: Sarkozy was an avid Atlanticist with explicit neo-liberal tendencies; Fillon represented the traditional Gaullist wing of the party. Historically, the two factions have been rivals, yet in the early days of the Sarkozy-Fillon tandem, the duo appeared to bridge their ideological differences and work toward a common objective.
This harmony was short-lived.
Just a few weeks after assuming office, the relations between the two men began to fray. Merely three months after his election, Sarkozy stated that he viewed his Prime Minister more as a collaborateur (member of his staff) than an equal partner in governance. This undisguised slight set the tone for the months and years to follow as the personal chemistry between the tenants of the Elysée Palace and Matignon deteriorated.
As their term in office progressed, the two leaders of France exchanged public criticism through the press with Sarkozy frequently belittling his own Prime Minister. In an unparalleled moment in the history of the Fifth Republic, President Sarkozy delivered an address to the joint houses of Parliament – a task historically reserved for the head of government – while his Prime Minister watched from the gallery.
Despite the palpable distaste between the two men, their destinies were intimately linked. The French public saw François Fillon as an even-tempered man capable of taming the erratic impulsions of their overzealous President. Yet they also saw in Sarkozy an ability to set a clear direction and implement his vision for the country – and to that end there was no better partner than François Fillon.
The ultimate irony of this unlikely duo was that neither would exist without the other. While Sarkozy’s approval rating plummeted, Fillon’s held steady, asserting the continued legitimacy of the French government. Similarly, Sarkozy’s energy and vision could only be implemented by a pragmatic and mild Prime Minister capable of curbing the Head of State’s penchant for recklessness.
Although this pairing was far from a match made in heaven, it worked. What’s more, given the unparalleled economic crisis that gripped France, the safety and stability of this split executive was key to the country weathering this financial storm. On three occasions, Sarkozy reshuffled his cabinet – each time with speculation mounting that Fillon was finally on the chopping block. Yet, each time, the unshakable Prime Minister remained. The truth was simple: the pair needed each other, even though neither of them cared to admit it.
Against all odds and statistics, this unlikely couple made it all the way to the end of a tumultuous five-year term. Although Nicolas Sarkozy left the Presidency defeated with record low popularity, his Prime Minister stubbornly retained a high personal approval rating and was widely seen as the future leader of the center-right: a welcome change from the visionary yet rambunctious outgoing President.
The Fall of the Statesman
Even within his own political family, Nicolas Sarkozy was a highly divisive person. His brand of politics ruffled many feathers in the party cadre, yet for all his detractors, Sarkozy managed to make the center-right UMP his own. Since 2002, the shadow of Nicolas Sarkozy hung over the party, first as a hugely popular and charismatic Interior Minister, and later as Party President. It was therefore of little surprise that his Presidential election loss to François Hollande and subsequent (although short-lived) retirement from politics created a leadership vacuum within the UMP.
Quickly, two contenders emerged to fill this gap. On one side was François Fillon; groomed by his five years in Matignon and applauded for his pragmatism, temper, and statesman-like qualities. Challenging him was Jean-François Copé, the leader of the UMP in the National Assembly and caretaker leader of the party during much of the Sarkozy presidency. In many ways, Copé was cut from the same cloth as Sarkozy: young, energetic, polarizingly ideological, and ruthless. For all the comparisons, however, Copé lacked the tact and political instincts of the former President. Sarkozy’s effusive charm – a weapon he leveraged to his advantage throughout his career – escaped Copé, who instead focused on fierce management of the party to maintain support. While Sarkozy inspired confidence, Copé instilled fear.
In the months leading up to the internal election to designate the new party chief, all commentators widely anticipated not only a Fillon victory, but a crushing defeat of his challenger. Poll after poll showed the soaring popularity of the former Prime Minister compared to the dismal numbers of Jean-François Copé, whose clan-like attitude alienated most of the party base. For many, not least of which Fillon, the race seemed a foregone conclusion.
Discounting Copé proved to be a grave error.
In a stunning upset on election night, Copé won with less than 100 votes out of over 150,000 cast. Fillon, unsurprisingly alarmed at the result after weeks of polls predicting his victory, challenged the results. The favorable projections of the election had made Fillon and his team complacent. Their campaign was lackluster and they failed to challenge a crucial provision: Copé, as interim party leader, would oversee the election. When the results were announced, both camps cried foul and hurled accusations of impropriety at each other.
The ensuing month only deepened this fracture. Fillon, feeling cheated out of the election, threatened to split the party and created a temporary splinter group in the National Assembly. With the party, and the entire opposition to the governing Socialists, teetering on the edge of collapse, a deal was brokered at the eleventh hour wherein both camps would share power. Fillon, left out of the executive team, had lost.
The even-tempered operator had lost his cool, and with it, his legitimacy. The statesman who just a few months prior was being tipped as a future Presidential candidate was disgraced. Although Fillon kept his seat in the National Assembly, he shrunk from the public eye leaving allies and foes alike to speculate about “what could have been” if this once lauded politician had met the destiny so many expected of him.
The Long March to Redemption
There is no institution that can bring people back from the dead quite like French politics. While the system itself is incestuous and horrendously difficult to break into, once a person has obtained status in this exclusive club, it is very difficult to revoke. While American and British politics has a ruthless finality to it, French politics has the tremendous capacity to resurrect even the most tarnished careers.
In this world, the center-right shines as a system continuously repopulating itself with the same leaders. As this perpetual cycle goes, François Fillon eventually clawed his way back from the abyss of the Fillon-Copé disaster.
Ever the pragmatist, Fillon’s strategy was to lay low. While Copé led the UMP with a nearly Mafia-like brutality, Fillon concentrated his efforts into growing his own think tank and support network Force Républicaine. With a sizable following of loyal party cadres and active members, Fillon was able to leverage Force Républicaine into a crucial fundraising and thought-leadership nexus. The Prime Minister recognized for his calm demeanor and talents as a manager was doubling down on a winning strategy.
Concurrently, Copé’s world was falling to pieces. Revelations that the party, under his leadership, had hidden disguised costs from the 2012 Presidential campaign to skirt campaign finance laws forced the President of the UMP to resign in disgrace. Similarly, the finances of the party were in complete disarray. The situation was becoming so dire that many suggested the party sell its elegant Parisian headquarters to reduce the staggering debt.
Jean-François Copé had exploded in midair, and François Fillon was there to pick up the pieces. Along with two other former Prime Ministers Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Fillon participated in a caretaker leadership for the UMP dubbed the “triumvirat.” The trio had a clear mandated goal: move on from the disastrous Copé years, fix the party’s finances, and prepare for new internal leadership elections.
These tasks were far from easy. The political infighting of the Copé years lingered on, worsened still by the looming presence of Nicolas Sarkozy who persistently hinted at his return. The task of rebuilding the party, as unenviable as it may have seemed, gave Fillon the opportunity to reestablish his credentials. Since the Fillon-Copé fiasco, Fillon’s popularity had slipped over 15 points. Slowly, however, he was reasserting his place on the political right with his eyes firmly fixed on one goal: the 2016 Presidential primary election.
The Return of Sarkozy and the Rebranding of Fillon
Despite the implosion of Jean-François Copé, Fillon’s return to the front of the French political scene remains a slow affair. His brief stint in the triumvirat helped rebuild his legitimacy, but did not catapult his career back to the levels he once enjoyed. If anything, his role as a caretaker leader of the UMP served only to condition the much-anticipated return of Nicolas Sarkozy.
There is a bitter irony in Sarkozy’s return. Upon leaving the presidency, he pledged to retire from politics and give way to a new generation of leaders. In true Sarkozy style, the lure of power and his insatiable ambition drew the former President back to his usual hunting grounds. The disastrous state of affairs in the party presented the perfect opportunity for Sarkozy to paint himself as a messianic figure: returning only out of benevolence without a shred of ambition.
Fillon, as an interim party leader, had both the unenviable task of plugging the holes in a sinking ship while planning the very election that would coronate his once and future nemesis. What’s more, the public’s opinion of the UMP caved following the Copé-Fillon disaster – making Sarkozy’s comeback all the more powerful. As was the case throughout the Sarkozy Presidency, Fillon again found himself facilitating the rise of the man standing between him and the Elysée Palace.
Such is the relationship between the two men.
This time, however, Fillon appeared to be fighting back. In a shocking book last November, two journalists from Le Monde alleged that Fillon asked the secretary general of the Elysée Palace Jean-Pierre Jouyet (himself a former minister under Fillon) to speed up legal investigations into Nicolas Sarkozy’s role in the campaign funding scheme. Fillon virulently rejected these claims however the nature of these tactics cast another shadow on his slow comeback.
Yet, for all the intrigue, Fillon’s personal quest for redemption does not stop at the return of the ex-President. While Nicolas Sarkozy easily won election as the new party president – an election Fillon judiciously avoided – the former Prime Minister focused on building his own brand: one that could make him a legitimate contender for the 2017 Presidential election.
For the first time in the history of the center-right in France, the main leaders of the UMP agreed to select the party’s representative for the 2017 elections through an open primary process where rank-and-file members, rather than party cadres, would select their champion. From the onset, Sarkozy was the clear favorite, followed closely by Alain Juppé – also a former Prime Minister and the popular mayor of Bordeaux. From the announcement of Sarkozy’s return, this race has been seen as a contest between the two men. Yet within this seemingly rigid race, François Fillon discovered his niche – one, he hopes, will propel him to the highest office in France.
Through his think tank Force Républicaine, Fillon began touring the country – giving speeches and listening to the concerns of average French voters. Detaching himself from Paris and the elite echelons of power, Fillon began a quest to construct a personal brand that would resonate with voters. One of the most tenured French politicians was seeking to win an election by touting himself as a bona fide anti-establishment candidate.
In most cases, this strategy would be foolhardy. However in this election, Fillon’s two main opponents also happen to be the most tenured politicians on the French right.
Fillon’s strategy was therefore to differentiate himself enough to appeal to voters who were unenthused by the prospects of a Juppé or Sarkozy presidency. The difficulty was, Fillon could not compete with Sarkozy’s charisma and panache. Similarly, his moribund statesman figure was dwarfed by the affable and dignified Alain Juppé. The only recourse was to focus on one area where little separated Sarkozy and Juppé: their policies.
François Fillon’s formative years in politics were marked by the tutelage of Philippe Séguin – a leading voice in the Gaullist movement. Under Séguin, Fillon joined the ranks of the militant Gaullists in the National Assembly. In 1992, Séguin and Fillon led the campaign against the ratification of the Maastricht treaty. In doing so, Fillon went against Jacques Chirac – then party leader – who campaigned for the ratification of this seminal European text.
Throughout his career, Fillon’s solid Gaullist position often separated him from others in his party. The French right has always been torn between its neo-liberal, reformist wing and the traditional Gaullist wing. Both frequently spar over the role of the state in economic and social affairs. In recent times, François Fillon has staunchly stood on one side of that debate. It therefore came as a surprise to many when the protégé of Philippe Séguin rebranded himself as the champion of liberal economic reforms in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential primary.
Indeed, in the release of his pre-election manifesto, Fillon shocked most political observers by calling for deep cuts in public spending, profound reforms to political and economic institutions. Comparisons to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately circulated. The relative intensity of Fillon’s program is crystalized by his desire to repeal the controversial 35-hour work week – a policy he actively shied away from in government.
For all the appearances of opportunism, Fillon’s reemergence as an economic reformer is not simply a political ploy. France is in dire need of a leader willing to make tough, and often unpopular decisions in order to fix the broken economy. Neither Sarkozy nor Juppé – both fixated on their political legacy – would dare approach such controversial subjects. For Fillon, this is not only the right path for the country, but is his only way out of the political graveyard.
Fillon Spreads his Wings
With the UMP primary a year away, François Fillon stands as the only candidate embracing the kind of radical change France most desperately needs. This is a political positioning which has already begun to bear fruits. In May, Fillon began to claw his way out of the abysmal polling numbers that had plagued him since his failed bid for the Presidency of the UMP. What’s more, this month saw the allegations of political impropriety in the Jouyet affair be dropped by French courts.
Currently, Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy are still tapped as the two likeliest candidates to represent the UMP, but this has neither deterred nor discouraged François Fillon. In recent months, he has increased his trips across the country to nearly once per week – banking on his direct contact with the French people and his courageous economic program to begin his slow but steady march back to legitimacy.
This strategy is far from flawless. Fillon is still painted by the mainstream French media as a failed opportunist whose pettiness in defeat will forever mark him. Others will never forgive the near-fratricidal brawl between Fillon and Jean-François Copé. Despite this incessant stream of criticisms, the former Prime Minister continues his road to political redemption undeterred.
François Fillon’s political career is profoundly enigmatic, yet rife with untold potential. From his rise to the second-longest serving Prime Minister to his incessant battles with Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon has been both lauded and misunderstood by the French public. With his final challenge – and with it, his last chance at political redemption – merely a year away, François Fillon is betting that his focus on reforms will be enough to woo the French electorate. This strategy may yet prove effective.
Fillon has emerged from his self-imposed exile a new man. Armed with an audacious plan to invigorate France and finally win the elusive Presidency, the former Prime Minister has spread his new political wings. Now he must fly.