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Former French Prime Minister and candidate for the right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party primary ahead of the 2017 presidential election Francois Fillon, poses on a 1956 Lotus Elan after a relay as he takes part in the Le Mans Classic car race, on July 8, 2016 in Le Mans, western France. (JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Former French Prime Minister and candidate for the right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party primary ahead of the 2017 presidential election Francois Fillon, poses on a 1956 Lotus Elan after a relay as he takes part in the Le Mans Classic car race, on July 8, 2016 in Le Mans, western France. (JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)

François Fillon’s surprise surge in the French presidential race Add to ...

First came Brexit, then Donald Trump, and now François Fillon is confounding pollsters and pundits in France as he closes in on taking the lead in the race to become the country’s next president.

Mr. Fillon, a former prime minister who loves fast cars and idolizes Margaret Thatcher, has come out of nowhere and is poised to win the final round of voting in the Republican Party primary on Sunday. If he prevails, Mr. Fillon will be considered the favourite heading into the presidential election next spring, where he will likely face National Front leader Marine Le Pen in a head-to-head showdown.

It has been a remarkable few weeks for the man party insiders mocked as “Mr. Nobody.” Pundits had written him off long ago and polls showed him with barely 12-per-cent support among the Republican faithful. But he stunned the party in the first round of voting last Sunday, taking 44 per cent of the vote and crushing presumed favourites Alain Juppé, also a former prime minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, who as president once referred to then-prime minister Fillon as “my employee.” Polls show Mr. Fillon will easily beat Mr. Juppé in Sunday’s runoff and would trounce Ms. Le Pen for the presidency.

Read more: Quelle surprise: France’s political right turn

Read more: France’s Fillon wins top spot in conservative primary, Sarkozy concedes defeat

Just like Brexiteers in Britain and Mr. Trump in the U.S., Mr. Fillon has tapped into a discontent in France with immigration, political correctness and big government. He is blunt in his assessment of what ails the country and has called for sweeping cuts to government spending, lower taxes for businesses and longer working days for bureaucrats. He rejects the notion of multiculturalism and advocates less immigration along with an emphasis on “affirming our values.”

And he’s ready to have closer relations with Russia, saying the current isolation of President Vladimir Putin by the West has done more harm than good.

French commentator Pierre Haski says Mr. Fillon has won the backing of Catholic conservatives, a largely overlooked group who took to the streets in droves three years ago when the Socialist government of François Hollande introduced legislation allowing same-sex marriage. Mr. Fillon opposed the measure and has also come out against adoption rights for same-sex couples.

“There was a huge mobilization and kind of an awakening of Catholic networks in France, traditional values and so on. They had almost disappeared from having any political influence and all of a sudden they rose again on the gay marriage and they managed to get hundreds of thousands of people in the streets,” Mr. Haski said. “Even if they failed to stop the bill, they created a political phenomenon which has not completely disappeared since then. And Fillon has managed to get them on his side.”

Mr. Haski added that these voters may share many of the same views as the National Front, but they view Ms. Le Pen’s party as unpalatable. Mr. Fillon is an attractive alternative.

He was born in Le Mans, about 200 kilometres southwest of Paris, and had a strict Catholic upbringing. After studying law, Mr. Fillon became an assistant to the local MP and ran for office in 1981 at the age of 27, becoming the youngest MP in the national assembly.

He met his wife, Penelope Clarke, who is British, in the 1970s when Ms. Clarke was working as an English-language assistant at a school near Le Mans. They married in 1980 and now live with their five children in a 12th-century home nestled in 20 acres of forest outside Le Mans. The family leads a largely low-key life and Mr. Fillon kept out of the public eye during Mr. Sarkozy’s tenure as president, a contrast in styles with the flamboyant leader and his supermodel wife. Mr. Fillon’s one extravagance is fast cars. He owns a number of classic cars and has been known to race at the famous Le Mans track.

Mr. Fillon is hardly a populist or an outsider, having served in government for 35 years. But he has managed to position himself as a kind of establishment underdog, sharply criticizing the Hollande government for its inaction on the economy and terrorism. He won plaudits among conservatives with the publication this fall of a book titled Vanquishing Islamic Totalitarianism, which warned that “the bloody invasion of Islamism into our daily life could herald a third world war.”

“When a foreigner comes to our country, they must integrate and respect our heritage,” he said during a debate with Mr. Juppé on Thursday. “When you go into somebody else’s house, out of courtesy you don’t just take over.”

While his anti-immigration rhetoric has won over right-wing voters and rattled Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Fillon’s economic prescriptions could prove a tougher sell. He has called for a Thatcheresque overhaul of government, proposing to cut 500,000 public-servant jobs (almost 10 per cent of the work force), reduce the power of unions, slash spending by 100 billion euros over five years and reform the health-care system. That could be unpopular in a country where 22 per cent of all workers have public-service jobs and government spending accounts for 57 per cent of the gross domestic product, among the highest in the OECD group of developed countries where the spending average is 40 per cent of GDP.

His economic policies present a sharp contrast to Ms. Le Pen, 48, who has a strong anti-austerity agenda that includes increasing government spending, hiking wages, boosting pensions, controlling consumer lending rates and withdrawing from the European Union. Those are all measures backed by many on the left who may end up siding with Ms. Le Pen in a runoff against Mr. Fillon.

“It’s not clear that Fillon is an attractive character for the left in French society to rally around,” said Paul Diggle, a senior economist at Aberdeen Asset Management in London. “I wouldn’t be willing to give you any better odds than 50-50 on Le Pen versus Fillon.”

Mr. Fillon isn’t backing away from his tough remedies. “If we’re not radical now, when will we be?” he asked during Thursday’s debate. “If we’re not taking risks now, when will we take them?”

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