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Presidential hopeful Fillon's staying power highlights France's conservative face

how others see it

Despite slipping in the polls since being charged with paying his wife and children for work they did not do, François Fillon maintains about 20 percent support. And pollsters say that given the unpredictability of this election, he can’t be written off.

A view of Le Mans, France.
Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
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Caption

As a deeply devout Catholic, François le Forestier takes the “fake jobs” scandal engulfing France’s conservative presidential candidate personally, not just politically.

When center-right candidate François Fillon, a social conservative with Catholic roots, was charged with paying his wife and children for work that they might never have done, the allegations hit close to the heart for this father of four in Le Mans, Mr. Fillon’s birthplace. “I had friends who asked, ‘You who are Catholic, why are you supporting a robber and a liar?’”

But Mr. Le Forestier, who works with the homeless and is a local political official for the center-right party in his region, says that if the questions were difficult to bear, he's also readjusted his expectations and put his full support behind Fillon’s economically and socially conservative platform.

“I was disappointed. I thought he was tres clean,” he says. “At the same time, I said to myself that when we do politics, we do it on earth, not in heaven. And on earth, not everything is completely clean, and people are not completely saints.”

His position goes a long way to explain the staying power of Fillon, whose judicial probe has magnified this era's public disgust with mainstream politics and drawn mockery, charges of hypocrisy, and even anti-corruption protests that in another country or context would have definitively ended his candidacy. And yet he maintains about 20 percent support, and pollsters say that given the unpredictability of this election, he can’t be written off.

With a solid base rallying around Fillon – including a crowd that organizers say was over 20,000 in Paris on Sunday – French electoral dynamics are also revealing a conservative face of a country whose narrative is normally dominated by a secular, permissive image portrayed in the media and popular culture. In reality, says Pascal Perrineau, an expert on electoral sociology at Sciences Po in Paris, “France is rather a country of the right today.”

Fillon's appeal

On Palm Sunday, the bells ring out at the Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes in the region of the Sarthe, where Fillon broke into politics. As Benedictine monks begin to chant and incense fills the church, it feels otherworldly – and far away from Fillon’s political rally in Paris. But Fillon recognizes provincial Catholics as precious support – and now key to preventing his electoral demise.

In August, it was here that Fillon proclaimed France’s Catholic identity with a speech after having celebrating the Feast of the Assumption at the abbey. “One thousand years of history!” he told his conservative base. “How can one not feel the force, the power, the depth of this past that has forged us and given us the keys for our future?”

Fillon surprised France by winning the Republican primary in a landslide in November, beating the centrists Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy with the most hard-line message. Not only did he campaign as a Catholic conservative, but he promised to slash public spending and usher in austerity – vows that inspired the Liberation newspaper to depict him on their front page as Margaret Thatcher.

At that time the race was Fillon’s to lose, with the Élysée Palace, the president's official residence, expected to be handed to the center-right after the deeply unpopular presidency of Socialist François Hollande. But, now under formal investigation over allegations that include misuse of public funds, Fillon has dropped behind the centrist Emmanuel Macron and populist Marine Le Pen, neither of whom are mainstream.

On Sunday, Fillon sought to generate a last-minute surge to make round two of the vote on the basis of his program, not his person. “I’m not asking you to like me. I’m asking you to back me, because this is about what’s best for France,” Fillon told the crowd.

Yann Raison du Cleuziou, an expert on Catholicism at the University of Bordeaux, says conservatives have rechanneled their disappointment in Fillon. “In the beginning they said we are defending him, and now we are defending his program. They say that who he is is disappointing, but his program is still a good one, it’s the best one.”

Fillon’s rivals have been merciless in their condemnation of a man who presented himself as the candidate of restraint. In early March, Fillon appealed for forgiveness for the employment scandal. But Mr. Macron, who has surged on Fillon’s woes, told the channel France 2 that “The vote is not an absolution.”

Fillon has left many in his home region angry and confused, too. “He’s a bandit, he lives in a chateau and he’s living off France,” grumbles Fabien Ragot, who works for the national railway in Le Mans, the capital of the Sarthe region.

A 'man of conviction'

But many others have risen to his defense. In Sablé-sur-Sarthe, down the river from the abbey where Fillon has a country house with his Welsh-born wife Penelope and five children, many saboliens know him personally – and refuse to talk to journalists who they say have created a “fake scandal.” He entered politics here in 1976 as an aide to a lawmaker whose sudden death catapulted Fillon into office. Later, he was the town’s popular mayor from 1983 to 2001.

Bruno Tilly, a telecoms operator in Sarthe, says he doesn’t believe the media. “I don’t believe it’s true, it’s just political games,” he says. “Fillon is the only one of the candidates that is presidential.”

Above all, Mr. Tilly supports Fillon’s liberal economic platform. But there is a demand for conservatism on security, too, says Dr. Perrineau. He points to a Kantar Sofres-OnePoint poll from March that showed 70 percent of respondents wishing military service to be reinstated; 67 percent saying the justice system isn’t hard enough on small-time offenders; and 52 percent saying that the state grants too many rights to Islam and Muslims.

Dr. Raison du Cleuziou says that while hardcore Catholics are important to Fillon – especially as members of his party have abandoned his candidacy – it’s imprecise to talk about a “Catholic vote.” While Catholics vote overwhelmingly for the right, only 5 percent of the French declare themselves as practicing Catholics – thus his support spans beyond the “Catholic” vote.

Fillon appeals to conservative concerns over national identity, especially against the perceived threat of Islam. He also represents a chance for provincial sensibilities – which conservatives often say are muffled and distorted by mainstream culture shaped in Paris – to be reflected in national office. For them, Fillon was a “man of conviction,” not like Mr. Sarkozy, who was divorced and "liked money,” says Raison du Cleuziou. “François Fillon represented the notable Catholic from the countryside,” he says.

Fillon has key backing of the political movement Sens Commun, which was formed after the “Manif Pour Tous” (Protest for All) protests against gay marriage in 2013 took France by surprise, highlighting conservative sentiment that turned into a mass movement for family values. Le Forestier, part of the movement, says many in Sens Commun have no faith in the press that mocked them, painting them as reactionaries.

“In the US, to be conservative is nothing negative. They say they are proud to be conservative. In France, it’s not possible. When you say you are conservative it’s very negative,” Le Forestier says, a reflex that harks back to the French Revolution and its emphasis on progress. “[Conservative here] means you are old, you aren’t looking at the future, you are only looking at the past,” he says.

But the connotation of the word is changing, he adds. While the group lost the gay marriage fight – it became legal in 2013 – he says the movement, far beyond a religious one, has gained massive numbers of adherents and visibility, giving conservatives more of a voice.

Slipping away?

Not all Catholics have been able to reconcile the corruption accusations swirling around Fillon, putting a wildcard into the race as many of them say they will abstain, or vote for Le Pen.

“We were so disappointed, and now we don’t know what to think,” Nathalie Roult says in the shadow of the Cathedral of Le Mans. “When you are a Catholic you share with those in need, you don’t amass wealth for yourself,” says the baker.

A Kantar Sofres poll this weekend showed Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon surpassing Fillon for third place for the first time, deepening Fillon’s woes. But pollsters say there could be a “hidden vote”: people hiding intentions from pollsters – and from themselves. That means an upset is possible, and could ultimately favor Fillon as a standard bearer of the mainstream.

“Fillon is saying … ‘I am the only one who can guarantee you stability,’” says Edouard Lecerf, director of polling at the firm Kantar Public in Paris. “There can be people at the last minute who may feel comfortable ... with their traditional vote again.”