Fillon Pitches Bitter Economic Medicine in French Presidency Bid


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PARIS—Veteran politician Franç ois Fillon's bid to become France's next president hinges on whether he can rally his compatriots to embrace a form of economic shock treatment they have long resisted.

Earlier this week, Mr. Fillon won the French conservatives' primary by promising a more radical version of a program he was unable to carry out as prime minister a decade ago: loosening France's rigid labor laws, cutting government bureaucracy and shifting the tax burden from business to consumers.

That stance puts the former prime minister, who lives in a stately home west of Paris, at odds with the populist plan advanced by his likely chief rival, far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen. Her anti-immigrant party pledges to defend France's generous welfare system and boost spending power for low-income earners.

But the tough measures were embraced by a broad spectrum of the 4.4 million French voters who cast primary ballots on Sunday—from the affluent, worried about mounting public debt, to blue-collar voters seeking a new recipe to combat years of high unemployment—according to pollsters.

Raphaë l Huon, a Parisian lawyer who said he voted for Mr. Fillon, argued that given the country's social divisions and struggle to create jobs for young people, "half measures" wouldn't be enough and that the country "needs an electroshock."

Mr. Fillon has cast himself, not for the first time, as a man on a mission to pass these controversial policies. As prime minister a decade ago, he clashed with then-President Nicolas Sarkozy by pushing tougher measures to reduce the budget deficit, extend working hours and overhaul pensions.

"I was ready to take responsibility for unpopular, bold choices," Mr. Fillon said in his 2015 book "Faire" about his presidential ambitions.

The risk for Mr. Fillon is that in the general election, his economic plans, which represent a departure even for French conservatives, will fail to win enough support.

Right-leaning French politicians in the 1980s briefly tried to import some of the ideas championed by Mrs. Thatcher and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and were thoroughly trounced by the Socialist Franç ois Mitterrand in the next election, says Bruno Cautrè s, a political scientist at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris.

"Since then, the right wing has had a quasi-taboo on Thatcherite ideas," Mr. Cautrè s said. "Franç ois Fillon at some point will be obliged to moderate, to explain to the French that he is not Maggie Thatcher."

After his election in 2007, Mr. Sarkozy failed to push through the entirety of his economic agenda he had prepared with Mr. Fillon. Mr. Sarkozy revamped the pension system but fell short on pledges to loosen labor laws and bring down public debt.

Already, some of the political forces that challenged Mr. Sarkozy then are gearing up to stop Mr. Fillon.

Labor unions are threatening mass demonstrations, which have forced past French presidents to back down from ambitious plans to revamp the economy and labor market. Among other things, Mr. Fillon has pledged to reduce the number of government employees by 500,000 if elected.

Mr. Fillon's rivals have swiftly targeted him since his come-from-behind primary victory. "Wild globalization has its candidate, and that candidate is Franç ois Fillon," Florian Philippot, a top aide to Ms. Le Pen, said this week. " It's a program that goes back to the 19th century: no social security, no legal working hours."

Leftists have joined the criticism of Mr. Fillon's economic program and attacked the former's prime minister's conservative social agenda, in particular his pledge to roll back parts of the Socialist government's gay-marriage law.

But French businesses leaders, who have thrown their weight behind Mr. Fillon, say the stars are aligned for the public to accept the economic remedy he is prescribing.

"French people are fed up with decline. They want to have a country that isn't afraid of losing and has a desire to win," said Franç ois Asselin, head of France's small-business confederation CGPME.

A poll by survey company Opinionway of 3,528 primary voters on Sunday found that Mr. Fillon overwhelmingly won among the right's core constituency of entrepreneurs, high earners, and retirees. He also won 66% of the working-class vote and captured support from about half of people who classified themselves as centrists.

"It's striking how strong he is among the right-wing electorate and beyond," said Bruno Jeanbert, a research director at Opinionway.

Still, Mr. Fillon's primary voters represent a narrow slice of the overall electorate of more than 35 million. Even some of them were wary of his sweeping economic program.

Odile Berteau, a homemaker from an upscale district of western Paris, said that she was uncomfortable with the extent of the cuts Mr. Fillon is planning in state employment but supports him nonetheless. "We might perhaps suffer with him, but we've got to straighten out France."

Mr. Fillon's economic program is also likely to find allies in Brussels at the European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, which is charged with reviewing government budgets throughout the 28-nation bloc.

His calls to raise the retirement age, cut taxes and slash spending mirror recommendations published by the commission each year—and usually ignored by the government in Paris.

Mr. Fillon is proposing that France exceed EU budget deficit targets for the next two years, but aides hope his proposed overhauls to government bureaucracy, pensions and taxes will mollify the commission.

"I'm not a candidate to sit in an armchair in the É lysé e and wait for time to pass," Mr. Fillon said Monday. "I am a candidate who wants to repair my country."

Write to William Horobin at William.Horobin@wsj.com and Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

This article was corrected at 6:45 p.m. ET because the original version misspelled former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's first name as Nicholas.


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