Skip to main content

Former French prime minister and member of Les Republicains political party, Francois Fillon delivers a speech after partial results in the second round for the French center-right presidential primary election in Paris, France.Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

The resurgence of the conservative movement in France has shaken the country's political foundations and led to questions about the future of Socialist President François Hollande.

Mr. Hollande's approval rating has sunk to as low as 4 per cent in some opinion polls and he is coming under growing pressure not to seek re-election next year. Instead the Socialist party is hoping to find a candidate who can take on the surging Republican Party and far-right National Front.

The Socialists spent Monday scrambling to find an answer to the sudden popularity of François Fillon, a former Prime Minister who scored a resounding victory in the Republican Party primary on Sunday with a tough platform that includes radically reforming the government, restricting immigration and slashing public spending.

Read more: François Fillon wins French presidential primary

Konrad Yakabuski: No longer impossible: Marine Le Pen can win

Konrad Yakabuski: Quelle surprise: France's political right turn

Mr. Fillon, 62, told a room packed with party members on Sunday that he planned to bring the truth to the country and raise it to new heights. There was a nationalistic fervour in the audience as many started singing the national anthem and others talked glowingly about returning the country to Christian values. More than four million people participated in the primary and until recently most polls had given Mr. Fillon a scant chance of winning.

"I think that the French people are waiting for someone who says the truth," said Mathieu Carat, a 24-year-old civil servant who said people don't trust polls or pundits any more. "We will have to take strong decisions. We have to change, we have to move forward. In France sometimes it's difficult but now it's time and if we have to take radical decisions I think we will be better."

The Socialists and others on the left are reeling from years of stagnant economic growth under Mr. Hollande as well as stubbornly high unemployment and the fall-out from terrorist attacks. Mr. Fillon's victory and the rise in popularity of National Front leader Marine Le Pen represent a growing move away from traditional politics. Many now expect next year's presidential race, which starts with the first round in April, to end up in a runoff between Mr. Fillon and Ms. Le Pen.

There's not much room in the middle for the Socialists either. The party faces a challenge from Emmanuel Macron, a 38-year-old former banker and businessman who served in Mr. Hollande's cabinet and is now running for president as an independent under a centre-left movement called En Marche. Mr. Macron has never run for office before but he has caught the attention of many progressives and infuriated Socialists who have labelled him a traitor.

The Socialists select their candidate in a primary in January and few expect it to attract even half the number of people who participated in the Republican vote (party primaries are open to any voter so long as they pay €2 and sign a short statement saying they agree with the party's principles). Mr. Hollande will have to win the party's nomination if he wants to seek re-election. Nominations close on Dec. 15 and the president hasn't indicated if he will run.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who was appointed by Mr. Hollande, has hinted that he might seek the nomination, leading to the awkward possibility of the President and Prime Minister competing against each other. The two men met Monday to clear the air and party officials denied there was any tension between them or that they would both run for the nomination. But many in the party prefer Mr. Valls and see him as a more centrist option with a better chance against Mr. Fillon and Ms. Le Pen.

"I hope that Hollande will not be a candidate," said Alain Barkate, who leads the local socialist group in Puget sur Argens, a town on the French Riviera that has seen rising support for the National Front. He wants Mr. Valls to run instead and added that those on the left "have to be credible."

"We cannot afford being extremist and reject a candidate just because we don't agree 100 per cent with what he says." Socialists in his area "are discouraged and dispersed," he said. "They are waiting for a leader to emerge."

But others like Mickael Nogal have written off the party as irrelevant.

Mr. Nogal, 26, had been a member of the Socialist party since he was 15-years-old and he campaigned actively for Mr. Hollande in 2012. He left the party last year and is backing Mr. Macron's En Marche movement, which is not aligned with a political party.

"I'm really, really disappointed," said Mr. Nogal, who works as a communications consultant in Paris. "There have been too many mistakes in the choices [the Socialists] have made. There's no vision."

Mr. Nogal has turned to Mr. Macron in part because he is not a politician. "French people are now ready to accept a new, non-politician like him," Mr. Nogal said. He added that after five years of Mr. Hollande, preceded by five years of right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was also deeply unpopular, the country is looking for a change.

If Mr. Hollande is not re-elected, his replacement will take France, and possibly Europe, in a much different direction just as it copes with Brexit, migrants and Russia. Britain's David Cameron has already been swept aside as Prime Minister after the country voted to leave the EU and German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks vulnerable as she seeks a fourth term. Now France is facing similar upheaval.

Mr. Fillon has been lukewarm on the EU and has pledged to put France's interests first. He has also called for closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the West's current policy of isolating and punishing Russia hasn't worked. Ms. Le Pen wants to pull France out of the EU and restrict immigration. And Mr. Macron has called for major reforms to the EU.

With files from Sophie Muller