The surprising victory of pro-Russian candidate Francois Fillon in the presidential primaries could turn Russia into a major policy issue in the 2017 French presidential campaign.

Francois Fillon puts his hand on his heart after delivering a speech following the conservative presidential primary Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 in Paris. Photo: AP

The presidential race in France officially started on Nov. 27 when the French center-right party, the Republicans, elected their candidate, Francois Fillon. The most surprising was the fact that Fillon easily defeated his rival Alain Juppe, despite his controversial pro-Russian views. That sets up a battle for the French presidency that could include the presidential incumbent, Francois Hollande, as well as Marine Le Pen from the far-right National Front.

Such a result can be partially explained by the primary system used by the Republicans. This year, the Republicans organized their first primaries in which all French citizens could vote - including those who support the leftist forces. That caused a change in campaign tactics, as candidates from the Republicans had to appeal not only to their core constituency, but also - indirectly - to members of the left and far right.

The results of the first round of the primary, which was held on Nov. 20, became a national sensation: Fillon, a former prime minister (2007-2012) under President Nicolas Sarkozy and someone who was not perceived as a front-runner, won by securing 44.2 percent of the votes. Juppe, former prime minister (1995-1997) under President Jacques Chirac, finished in second place, getting 28.4 percent of the votes.

Sarkozy, who came in third out of seven candidates, lost his bid for the presidency, since the second round could feature only the top two candidates from the first round. A key factor in his poor showing may have been the wish of the electorate, especially the left one, to withhold their votes for a former president with a questionable reputation.

However, the totally different strategies chosen by the three candidates played a major role in the final results of the primaries. In the Sarkozy-Juppe confrontation, both candidates went to extremes: Sarkozy, using rough rhetoric, aimed at getting votes from the far-right National Front, while Juppe, acting in a more moderate way, appealed to the centrists and even part of the left electorate, placing into question his real commitment to the ideas of the right at all.

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Compared to those two, Fillon well showed himself more moderate than Sarkozy and more traditionally right than Juppe, which enabled him to win over the core right electorate, which is liberal, Catholic, intensely interested in the issues of French identity and unpleased with the current French president’s reforms.

After the first round, Juppe had only three days to close a 16 percent gap with Fillon and to convince the right-wing forces during the final debates that he was the better candidate than Fillon. Both politicians had programs that were not that different from each other: They stood for liberal economic reforms, keeping the social status quo (against surrogacy but keeping same-sex marriage) and a more active French foreign policy.

One of the most severe criticisms that Juppe aimed at Fillon was about his pro-Russian views. In fact, it’s possible to say that the Russia factor played a significant role in the decision of the electorate to choose Fillon over Juppe as it was the most disputable point for both candidates.

Fillon's pro-Russian position

Fillon is considered to be one of the main Russophiles in France. It was Fillon who signed the contract to build the two Mistral helicopter-carriers for Russia in 2010 and who also supported Moscow’s Syria policy. Juppe, being a Euro-Atlanticist, called for "exigent" dialogue with Russia but was not as open to the idea of engagement.

The Russian factor demonstrated similarities and differences in the positions of the candidates. Both Fillon and Juppe underlined their desire to distance themselves from aligning exclusively with the U.S. and to balance French relations with Washington by building dialogue with Moscow. The differences were in the candidates’ attitude towards "Russian issue" - Crimea, Syria and European security.

Playing the Russian card, Juppe exploited sentiments in some media outlets, which represented Fillon as a “man of Moscow” who was ready to lift the sanctions. “I am quite surprised that the Russian leader is choosing his own candidate for the first time [in France],” Juppe suggested.

However, Fillon successfully opposed him by saying that, in fact, he does not plan to raise the question of lifting the sanctions, and does not really support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Instead, he merely insists on the necessity of developing dialogue with Russia on Syria and Ukraine issues.

“The real danger for Europe is not Russia at all. The real threat is of an economic nature that comes from Asia. Is it wise then to push Russia to Asia? I believe that the sanctions policy with regard to Russia has failed and we all should acknowledge that. However, I do not acknowledge the annexation of Crimea,” stated Fillon.

Thus, it is quite clear that Fillon's welcoming approach to Russia does not really mean that he sees eye-to-eye with Moscow on absolutely every aspect of international affairs and global issues.

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The debates demonstrated that Fillon was more convincing for 71 percent of the French. This eventually transferred in Fillon’s ultimate success in the second round of the primaries, as he received 67 percent of the votes compared to Juppe’s 33.5 percent. Right after his victory, Fillon paid tribute to his opponents and called on the right-leaning forces to unite.

Combining economic liberalism (which attracts entrepreneurs), with conservative values (Catholicism and the traditional family) in his program was the difference for Fillon. Besides, conservative values and Fillon’s desire to build dialogue with Russia might well attract part of the far-right electorate. In general, Fillon’s current political position could be described as the “calm right.”

Looking ahead to the French presidential campaign

The result of the primaries of the right and center forces in France also influenced the leftist forces within the country. It is quite indicative that after Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat, the current President of France, Francois Hollande, signaled his readiness to run for a second presidential term.

That sets up a potential struggle between Hollande and Fillon for the French presidency, in which Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Front could play an important role in shifting the debate to the right of the political spectrum. Besides two main political forces - rulling Socialist party and the Republicans, as well as growing National Front, French political system has several other parties – the liberal centrist Union of Democrats and Independents, the Left Front (coalition of communist and left-wing parties) and an environmental party, the Greens. Although these parties alone cannot challenge the main actors, they can well affect the results of the second round of the presidential elections.

For the many French people who became disenchanted by the period of socialist rule, Fillon’s personality and program are viewed as more promising than these of Marie Le Pen’s National Front. A recent poll conducted on Nov. 27 showed that Fillon would have defeated Le Pen and any socialist candidate in the first round of the presidential elections, and could easily defeat the National Front leader in the second round by securing two-thirds of the vote if the elections had been held now.

However, we should take the polls more carefully. As the surprising results in both the United Kingdom and the U.S. this year have taught us – obvious forecasts have a way of turning out very differently than the experts and pundits originally predicted.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.