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As he entered the first round of primaries, Fillon, 62, was not on many lists to win. By Sunday, however, the former prime minister pulled off an upset over the frontrunner, Alain Juppé, and Nicolas Sarkozy, who said his political career was now over.
Fillon took 44 percent of the vote to Juppe’s 28 percent. He defied the polling that had predicted he would end up in third place, behind his higher-profile rivals.
“This is something very different for the French right”, historian Jean Garrigues told FRANCE 24 on Sunday night, noting that the conservative camp tends to back “a charismatic chief”.
Fillon’s spokeswoman, Alexandra Dublanche, told FRANCE 24 that her candidate’s appeal lies in the strength of his program.
“I think voters can see how serious he is about his program and he is very ambitious with ambitious measures and I think that’s what people want,” she said in a televised interview with FRANCE 24’s Catherine Nicholson.
A conciliatory tone
Fillon’s late surge in popularity could be attributed to the publication of his book on the fight against radical Islam in France. Fillon writes that while there is no religious problem in France, there is a problem linked to Islam and government policies should target fundamentalism and not law-abiding Muslims.
He struck a conciliatory tone on Muslim minorities, but he caused anger among a black rights group during the campaign when he referred to French colonialism as a way for France to share its culture.
On foreign policy, he has demonstrated a willingness to break with current policy by calling for a rapprochement with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Syria and supporting any working relationship that could develop between Putin and US president-elect Donald Trump.
Dublanche said Fillon is offering a real alternative to current policies. “These are people (Trump and Putin) we have to deal with to solve problems, so we can’t do without them. Fillon is just practical and realistic,” she said.
Born in a western region of France where Catholic roots remain strong, Fillon is a strong supporter of Christian family values.
A social conservative, he voted against same-sex marriage when it was introduced by the Socialist President François Hollande and has campaigned against medically assisted procreation for single women and lesbian couples.
An advocate for labour reforms
A proud “Thatcherite”, Fillon is an advocate of labour reforms and cutting government spending. He has pledged to cut 500,000 public-sector jobs over five years. He has also proposed ending the 35-hour working week and increasing the retirement age, changes that won’t be easy in a nation vigilant about workers’ rights.
In response to accusations that he is much further to the right on the economy than his conservative rivals, Fillon has said, “I’m tagged with a [free market] label in the same way one would paint crosses on the doors of lepers in the Middle Ages. But I’m just a pragmatist.”
Fillon, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012, when Sarkozy was president, steered France through the global financial crisis – something his rivals have been quick to exploit in their attempts to undermine his credentials.
Despite the critics, he remains undeterred in pursuing a British economic model.
“My fellow Frenchmen have told me, everywhere, they want to break away from a bureaucratic system which saps their energy,” he said.
In his personal life, Fillon has been heavily influenced by British culture. He is married to a Welsh woman, Penelope Clarke, whom he met when she was teaching English in Le Mans. They have five children.
Facing off against Le Pen?
If he wins the second primary next weekend, Fillon could face the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who is expected to break through to the final round of the presidential campaign.
The question is whether Fillon has the grit and political savvy to take on Le Pen. His spokeswoman says he does.
“I think what it takes is a serious program and measures because LePen has voters behind her. But when you look at her program there is nothing there,” Dublanche said. “So Fillon’s biggest strength is to have this very precise strong program. And François Fillon never changes his mind.”