With just five months to go until French voters choose a new president in May next year, the election was turned on its head by a dramatic upset last Sunday.
In a matter of weeks, a resounding victory in Sunday’s primary of “Les Républicains” – former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right party – has catapulted François Fillon from an outsider in the shadows of a hotly-contested nomination race into the frontrunner’s seat in the upcoming presidential election campaign. Mr. Fillon, who served as Mr. Sarkozy’s prime minister from 2007 to 2012, soundly defeated his former boss and other seasoned politicians in last week’s primary.
With the Socialist party of French President François Hollande in disarray, Mr. Fillon is now the favorite to win next year. But victory in the general election for Mr. Fillon could also cause a headache in Germany.
The conservatives’ nominee is on friendly terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin and is at odds with Germany’s own more aggressive stance when it comes to Russia.
“If he wins, there’s a realistic chance that the E.U. ends up dropping its sanctions against Russia next year,” Barbara Kunz, a research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told Handelsblatt Global.
The timing of France’s election is key. Economic sanctions imposed by the European Union against Russia in 2014, as a result of its annexation of the Crimean peninsula, will have to be renewed next year. Unless by some miracle the Ukraine crisis is solved by the summer, Germany will likely be pushing for a new round of economic sanctions to be agreed in June – just one month after France’s new head of state is sworn in.
Not every European Union member is happy with the sanctions against Russia in the first place. But they were agreed upon in large part thanks to “a very strong partnership between Paris and Berlin,” Ms. Kunz said.
Therefore, if Germany and France aren’t on the same page next June, the sanctions have little chance of being extended. That would be a significant blow to Angela Merkel, who has advocated a firm approach towards Russia over its actions in Ukraine in the past years.
“Obviously we need to talk about this with François Fillon.”
It’s a realization that has slowly dawned on policymakers in Berlin who, like most political observers, had initially expected the French conservatives’ primary to produce a different winner.
Norbert Röttgen, a lawmaker from Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic party, stressed on Monday that “there is a big difference” on Russia between Mr. Fillon’s stance and that of the German government. Sanctions are the expression of Europe’s “common rejection” of Moscow’s strong-arm tactics, Mr. Röttgen said in an interview with the French news agency AFP.
“We have a fundamental disagreement with Russia on this issue and obviously we need to talk about this with François Fillon,” said Mr. Röttgen, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag.
If Mr. Fillon does win the French election – a likely but not at all certain outcome – it remains to be seen whether Ms. Merkel can persuade a man who as recently as 10 days ago, on French TV, said Mr. Putin “does not at all pose a threat to security.”
Mr. Fillon has a reputation for being the French senior politician who not only knows the Russian president best, but is on the friendliest terms with him.
As counterparts from 2008 to 2012, when Mr. Putin served as a prime minister during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, the two leaders dealt with each other frequently. And soon enough, a close relationship was born.
An article published in the French weekly magazine L’Express under the title “François Fillon and His Friend Putin” in January 2014, a time when nobody in France took the former French prime minister for a serious contender for the next presidential election, recounts many anecdotes that highlight how close both statesmen have grown over those few years. That relationship continued even after Mr. Putin moved back into the role of Russian president, while Mr. Fillon returned to being a simple Paris representative in the French parliament.
During a meeting between both then-prime ministers in the Rambouillet chateau in November 2009, Mr. Putin told his French counterpart how it was possible to be president of Russia, then prime minister, then president again. “It’s a bit more complicated than that in France,” a nonplussed Mr. Fillon half-jokingly replied.
“Mr. Fillon, in my opinion, stands out greatly from typical politicians worldwide.”
Yet, Mr. Fillon now has a good chance to be Mr. Putin’s counterpart once again.
News of his nomination was greeted with delight in Russia, where politicians and Kremlin-friendly media hailed the “sensational” victory of “a friend of Moscow.”
The Russian president congratulated the conservatives’ nominee as well. “Mr. Fillon, in my opinion, stands out greatly from typical politicians worldwide,” Mr. Putin said on Russian public television, praising him as a “skilled negotiator” and a “true professional.”
However, Mr. Putin is a hard sell for the French public, and Mr. Fillon, who is aware of this, has taken pains to downplay his closeness with the Russian president.
Although he calls for a rapprochement with Moscow, in particular to solve the Syrian crisis, the French presidential candidate recently emphasized that as a prime minister he “always fought hard” in negotiations with Mr. Putin. “He is an extremely tough interlocutor,” Mr. Fillon said, adding that the Russian head of state is “not a friend.”
To many observers, however, whether or not Mr. Fillon and Mr. Putin are true friends doesn’t really matter. “As a true heir of De Gaulle, a President Fillon is bound to pursue a foreign policy that matches the geopolitical interests of France, and this means more dialogue with Russia,” historian and foreign policy expert Alexander Rahr told Handelsblatt Global.
What’s more, Mr. Rahr argued that reports of a friendship between the two statesmen have been “greatly exaggerated.”
Mr. Rahr, the son of Russian exiles in Germany who holds both citizenships, is known in Germany for his sometimes Kremlin-friendly statements. He sees a Fillon presidency in France as a chance for “a new chapter” in diplomatic relations between Brussels and Moscow. “Putin has disappointed the current European leaders – now there’s too much mistrust and emotional baggage” that prevents significant headway from being achieved.
With a new player like Mr. Fillon in the game, things could get “a fresh start” and a solution to the Ukrainian crisis could possibly be found, Mr. Rahr said.
Not everyone is convinced. Nina Bachkatov, a Belgian academic and an expert on Russian politics, said “Russia knows that one man alone can’t change everything.”
What Moscow needs is for a few more accommodating politicians to attain power in various Western countries. “Fillon would be an important piece of the Lego puzzle,” Ms. Bachkatov told Handelsblatt Global.
Ultimately, things are at an impasse in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. “Realistically, the last thing Europe needs is another frozen conflict at its gates,” Ms. Bachkatov said, highlighting that for Moscow, however, the U.S. president-elect Donald Trump is “much more important than Fillon.”
“François Fillon knows well how the Franco-German relationship works.”
Mr. Fillon’s stance on Russia, both in the Ukraine conflict and in Syria, is not the only possible stumbling block to a solid relationship with Berlin. The presidential favorite also advocates for national governments to have more control over the European Central Bank, and also wants to pool national government debts across the 19-nation euro zone. Both stances are seen as anathema in Germany.
However, for Claire Demesmay, a specialist in Franco-German cooperation at the German Council on Foreign Relations, none of these differences with Berlin are insurmountable.
“François Fillon knows well how the Franco-German relationship works and that they’re a compromise-making machine,” Ms. Demesmay told Handelsblatt.
Berlin will have a lot of convincing to do, but has plenty of leverage nonetheless. Mr. Fillon will need Germany to support France when it comes to military spending, in order to contribute more on the international stage, Ms. Demesmay said. It will also probably need Berlin to look the other way if France’s annual public deficit exceeds 3 percent of GDP as a result of his reforms, as it probably will.
There have been plenty of disagreements between Paris and Berlin in the past, but they usually do not end up undermining Europe if they are addressed properly – and preferably away from public scrutiny. “The compromise-making machine works best behind the scenes,” Ms. Demesmay said with a chuckle.
“There’s no candidate who is 100 percent aligned with our views.”
CDU lawmaker Andreas Jung has been keen to dispel the discomfort expressed by his colleague Mr. Röttgen. “Fillon would be a good partner,” Mr. Jung told Handelsblatt Global, pointing out the many economic reforms the presidential candidate wants to implement in France, and which Berlin wholeheartedly welcomes.
As for the foreign policy differences, Mr. Jung, who chairs the French-German parliamentary friendship group of the Bundestag and has already met Mr. Fillon, would rather look at the big picture: “There’s no candidate who is 100 percent aligned with our views,” he said, recalling that when Mr. Hollande became French president in 2012, “initially there was a lot of skepticism in Berlin, but we found a lot of common ground to work on.”
And there is another compelling reason why many are actually relieved at the nomination of Mr. Fillon. After all, he’s a man who is believed to be able to defeat the ever-more popular far-right candidate Marine le Pen in the election. Despite the doubts in Berlin about Mr. Fillon, a French government led by Ms. Le Pen would no doubt be even more of a challenge.
“We aren’t interested in Marine Le Pen becoming the next French president – that would cause great damage to Europe,” a Berlin politician, who has asked not to be named, told Handelsblatt Global.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor at Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.