Nicolas Sarkozy has gone, but this is not good news for French liberals

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Have all elections become unpredictable these days? The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy must be asking himself that question after a humiliating defeat on Sunday in the first round of his party’s primaries for next year’s presidential election.

This huge upset – for a man who believed he was the only one of the six candidates who could “save” France – didn’t come from Alain Juppé, the right-of-centre mayor of Bordeaux who had been leading opinion polls for months. It came from Sarkozy’s own prime minister for five years, a man he used to describe as a “collaborator”, François Fillon.

Fillon’s success came after a long campaign in which he often appeared a spent force, a man whose conservative views and lack of charisma were unable to match Sarkozy’s energy and Juppé’s experience. But he came out first, with a comfortable lead that should safely take him to victory in the second round this coming Sunday, against Juppé. The winner will immediately be favourite to become president of France next May.

There were two losers on Sunday. The first was obviously Sarkozy, whose populist language came across as insincere, and whose troubles in the courts may have finally proved too much, even for his supporters.

But it was also bad news for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who would have preferred to face Sarkozy, or Juppé with his soft approach on immigration and identity issues – rather than the impeccable conservative credentials of Fillon.

After a glorious week for Le Pen in which foreign journalists were queuing to meet the supposed next in line after Donald Trump’s victory, she is back to political reality in a country where the traditional right hasn’t had its last word.

This will be welcome news for French liberals, given that it reduces the risk of a Le Pen presidential victory. But they might not like what comes next.

At 62, Fillon has been described as having the economic programme of Margaret Thatcher, the social conservatism of Canada’s Stephen Harper and the diplomacy of Vladimir Putin. All three caricatures are not far from the truth, and add up to a powerful combination that has appealed to rightwing voters in search of a credible alternative to the far-right.

Fillon has even managed to appear anti-establishment after being mocked by the media and political rivals. But politics is often based on short memories, and Fillon is as much an establishment politician as are his rivals – it’s only the narrative that is fresh.

The former prime minister has run a serious but dull campaign, building a solid coalition of supporters based on his liberal economic programme and traditional Catholic values. His main asset was to gain the support of those opposed to gay marriage, introduced in France three years ago.

Fillon didn’t promise to repeal the law, but to rewrite it to prevent married gay couples from adopting or bypassing the ban on medically assisted procreation. That was enough to get influential networks on his side.

On the question of Islam’s place in secular France – which has become a burning issue following the terrorist atrocities committed by French citizens-turned-jihadis, and has been treated with hostility by far-right and some mainstream politicians – Fillon has been a discreet but firm believer in the “traditional values of France”.

He recently published a book on “Islamic totalitarianism” in which he leans towards the “clash of civilisations” theory developed in the 1990s by Samuel Huntington. Fillon supports a tough law-and-order approach, and wants the strict implementation of secular laws.

But it’s on economic issues that Fillon wants to make the difference. He takes the comparison to Thatcher as a compliment, and wants to introduce shock therapy in a country known to be difficult to reform.

His proposals include slashing civil servant numbers by half a million and cutting public expenses by €110bn (£95bn). The retirement age would be increased from 62 to 65, and the working week from 35 hours to 39.