Europe

Making France Great Again: Fillon on Trump's footsteps?

Fillon's nationalistic rhetoric has transgressed into National Front territory.

Francois Fillon won the primaries of the French centre-right Republican Party [Reuters]

Francois Fillon, the seasoned French politician who won the weekend's Republican primaries is nothing like Donald Trump; the two are very different political animals with different characters and different pedigrees. But their platforms and visions for their countries are too close for comfort.

Fillon, like Trump, has pulled off an upset against his strong rivals, former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe. He's also leading in the polls ahead of France's presidential elections.

Like Trump, Fillon has won the primaries with high margins by playing on nationalist sentiments, traditional values, and security fears about immigrants and foreigners.

And like Trump, Fillon proposes to fix the stagnant economy and reinvigorate a melancholic nation through a mix of liberal market solutions, an illiberal social agenda and a much stronger security apparatus.

France's Francois Fillon wins conservative primary

Transatlantic populism

Fillon ran a populist campaign expressing nostalgia for a lost France and portraying himself as the only candidate capable of restoring its greatness and fixing its problems. Sounds familiar?

He reckons France urgently needs "radical change" to make it happy, great and prosperous again, and like Trump, he and he alone speaks for the people who are on the edge of "revolting" against a rigged system.

He claims the much-celebrated "French social model" is broken and must be replaced. He wants to "liberalise" the labour market by lifting much of the hard-earned protections offered to France's poor and workers, which he sees as obstacles to tackling unemployment and reviving the economy.

France does suffer from a number of chronic problems including, unemployment, social immobility, and imposing and, at times, dysfunctional state bureaucracy and its public sector that accounts for more than half of the country's economy.

Unemployment remains high at about 10 percent, similar to the rest of Europe, but more than double of Germany's, with around 25 percent unemployment among young people under 25 years of age.

But while unemployment, debt, and government spending remain high, France is not "on the verge of bankruptcy" as Fillon contends. The French economy, the world's fifth largest, is diverse and solid and has been able to cope with the 2008 global financial crisis better than most.

France is nothing like the US, but Fillon like Trump, needs the gloom and doom argument in order to impose his agenda; to raise the retirement age, cut welfare, privatise healthcare, reduce vacation and increase working hours. And of course, cut corporate tax to "stimulate growth".

France first

Fillon is a conservative Gaullist, who from the outset opposed the 1992 Maastricht Treaty that paved the way for the European monetary and political union.

He has long argued that the agreement infringed on France's sovereignty and its ability to manage the economy even though it was France, along with Germany, that dictated much of its agenda.

Fillon is not about to Frexit like Britain did earlier this summer. That will lead to the break-up of the European Union with incalculable cost for France and the continent.

Fillon rhetoric on Russia and Muslims will also alienate France's most important European political and economic partner, Germany.

But don't expect this Republican, if he ever makes it to the Elysee Palace, to spearhead any more moves towards a stronger more consolidated EU, as some might have hoped following the Brexit vote.

"France first" like "America first" is a strategy that works every time in favour of the right as it accuses the left of over caring for others and not caring enough for their own nation.

It also helps Fillon's centre-right in blocking the far-right National Front by taking away its only winning card.

Given that Fillon has written a book with the title, "Vanquishing Islamic Totalitarianism", wants to strictly control the practice of Islam in France, "reduce immigration to a strict minimum", dislikes multiculturalism and social liberalism, and takes pride in France's colonial era, why would any French citizen vote for the National Front?

Beyond Europe

Fillon compares "radical Islam" with the "totalitarianism of the Nazis" and reckons France should make fighting radical islamists its primary objective. Still shaken by the terrorist attacks of the past couple of years, many French are cheering.

The rightist leader also advocates supporting those who fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), group, especially the Assad regime and Iran. His views run contrary to the position of France's leadership on the right and left, both of whom accused the Assad regime of war crimes, and criminalised its Iranian and Russian supporters.

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Fillon reckons that France should work with Russia's Vladimir Putin instead of slapping him with sanctions. Back in 2007-2012, when Fillon was the prime minister of France and Putin was officially serving as prime minister of Russia, the two had a close rapport.

Like Trump, Fillon sees neither Syria nor the Ukraine as obstacles to improving relations with Moscow. On the contrary, he sees them as opportunities to work closer with Russia to resolve these deepening problems, especially in the fight against "radical Islam".

Republicans or ultra-nationalists

Fillon says that if France doesn't take risks now, then when? But as his Republican rival Alain Juppe correctly states, that Fillon's prescription is "brutal" and that he's taking the country into unchartered territory with too many risks and dangers to France and Europe.

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He is bound to further polarise the country and provoke cross-country upheaval against what will be deemed as a government assault on the social system and workers' rights.

Fillon's rhetoric on Russia and Muslims will also alienate France's most important European political and economic partner, Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has already warned the US president-elect of abandoning western values of equal rights and dignity of man, independent of origin.

As France, Britain, the United States, and Russia move away from a world of neoliberalism towards a world of tribalism, they should avoid alienating and antagonising Muslims on the basis of their religion for they could emerge as the largest tribe of all.

Likewise they must rethink their embracing of social and political illiberalism, hyper economic liberalism and heavy-handed security controls for they will lead to a global race to the bottom; a race which China, not France or the US, is destined to win.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera