François Fillon's plan to remake France in the image of Margaret Thatcher moved a step closer to reality on Sunday, after the former French prime minister won a resounding victory in the Republican Party primary.
Mr. Fillon, a devout Catholic who loves fast cars, has taken France by storm. Pollsters and pundits wrote him off a few weeks ago, saying his message of radical spending cuts, massive government layoffs, challenging unions and ending multiculturalism was too harsh. But Mr. Fillon defied the experts, finishing first among seven Republican candidates a week ago and taking Sunday's runoff against establishment figure Alain Juppé with 67 per cent of the vote in a record turnout.
Polls show he is now the overwhelming favourite to win the presidential election next spring, ending five years of rule by Socialist President François Hollande, who has become deeply unpopular as the economy stagnates. Mr. Fillon is also seen as a credible alternative to National Front Leader Marine Le Pen, who had been leading the race for presidency in some polls. While Ms. Le Pen offers a fiery brand of populism that includes more government spending and pulling out of the European Union, Mr. Fillon has become the darling of Catholic traditionalists who favour less government and a return to French values.
"France wants the truth," Mr. Fillon, 62, told a packed room of supporters in Paris on Sunday night after the results came in. "My ambition is to lift up the nation to its highest self."
The crowd erupted with chants of "Fillon, President" and renditions of the national anthem. After he spoke, several people rushed to the stage to take pictures of a page from his speech that he had left behind.
"I'm very, very happy," said Marie Duroudier, a retired pharmacist, as she stood at the back of the room. "He is someone who loves his country. He's a Christian. Instead of integrating people who come here, [Mr. Hollande] is trying to impose the culture of others on France. We have our culture and Mr. Fillon will impose our culture on them."
Near the front of the room, François-Xavier Poirier said he hasn't been this engaged in politics for 30 years. Mr. Fillon "is someone who has the guts to recognize the situation as it is," said Mr. Poirier, who runs a television-production company. "It was about time that someone spoke out loud the situation as it is and offers a project that is clear and is ambitious."
Mr. Fillon hasn't hesitated to offer tough remedies for France, which has seen its economy grow by a meagre 1 per cent annually in recent years and unemployment hover around 10 per cent. The country's debt level is approaching 100 per cent of its gross domestic product and by almost every measure France's productivity has fallen behind many other European countries, particularly Germany and Britain.
Economists and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have long called on France to rein in public spending, loosen its restrictive labour market and take on oligopolies that dominate the country's economy. Mr. Fillon is vowing to do all that and more. He wants to cut 600,000 civil-servant positions, more than 10 per cent of the work force. He plans massive reductions in government spending, an overhaul of the national health program and an end to the country's 32-hour week, mandating that bureaucrats work at least 39 hours with no extra pay.
He has also tapped into a growing discomfort about immigration and "laïcité," France's concept of strict secularism. Mr. Fillon wants school children to learn the glories of French history and he has said anyone who comes to France must integrate and accept the country's values. He has also spoken out against radical Islam, promising harsh measures against those who adhere to extremist ideology.
"He is saying the truth to the people," said Dorothée Pineau, a former member of the French foreign service who now works for the country's business chamber of commerce. Ms. Pineau points to former prime minister Jean Chrétien as an example of a leader who introduced tough measures in the 1990s to bring Canada's deficit under control.
"I was living in Canada 20 years ago and I don't remember that Canadians found it so hard, the program of Jean Chrétien," she said, adding that she worked in the French consulate in Montreal for a year. "He has told the truth to the French people and I think that the French people want to listen to the truth. His message is the courage of the truth."
Mathieu Carat, a 24-year old civil servant, said he welcomes Mr. Fillon's plans even if it means cuts to where he works. "I think that everyone has to accept that we are in a difficult period and we have to find solutions. Of course I'm a civil servant and maybe it will be hard for me but I'm very happy to work for the state."
Mr. Fillon's win Sunday raises problems for politicians on the left and right. Mr. Hollande's approval ratings are at all-time lows, leaving the Socialists scrambling to find a viable presidential candidate. A former economy minister in Mr. Hollande's government, Emmanuel Macron, has also resigned and launched his own campaign, posing another challenge to the Socialists. On the far-right, the National Front risks losing support to Mr. Fillon and the party has been attacking him ferociously. Polls show Mr. Fillon would easily beat Ms. Le Pen in a runoff.
That would be "easy for Mr. Fillon," said Ms. Pineau of Ms. Le Pen against Mr. Fillon in a second round. "It will be 75 per cent to 25 per cent. Socialists will vote for Fillon and even Le Pen supporters will vote for Fillon. He has a real message."