CAMBRIDGE – François Fillon, a discreet and loyal former prime minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, is now the right-wing Republicans’ official nominee for the French presidential election this spring. In the party’s primary last November, early polling had predicted a win for Alain Juppé, a prime minister under Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and had put Fillon a distant third behind Sarkozy himself (who was seeking to stage a political comeback). When Fillon pulled out a surprise victory, many observers began to compare him to Donald Trump.
Fillon is a soft-spoken, reserved, and deeply devout Roman Catholic who lives in a small castle in his native province of Sarthe. He exhibits none of the brashness, vulgarity, and self-adoration currently emanating from Trump Tower in New York. But Fillon’s supporters have three things in common with Trump’s: rejection of liberal identity politics; opposition to “expertise” as a decisive component of politics and policymaking; and anxiety about loss of power and status in a country they once dominated.
Fillon’s success can be traced back to 2013, when thousands of demonstrators nationwide took to the streets to protest against a law legalizing same-sex marriage – “Marriage for all” – which President François Hollande’s justice minister, Christiane Taubira, had introduced in the National Assembly. The “Manif pour tous” (“March for all”) was the first time in many years that French Catholics had come together specifically as Catholics to demonstrate against the government.
The law ultimately passed, and no one is proposing that it be repealed. Instead, Fillon wants to make it harder for same-sex couples to adopt children. Still, the march had a massive turnout that surprised even its participants; it set the stage for Fillon to win the primary – and, judging by current polls, to become the next French president.
The march brought together Catholics of all ages, including many families, and some of its younger leaders have since founded a successor movement called Common Sense. Their aim is to defend the traditional family, and to ensure a strong state within a reformed European Union, wherein the member states would repatriate certain powers. The name alludes not to Thomas Paine’s famous 1776 pamphlet, but to the capacity of “normal” people to judge what is right for themselves, without having to rely on experts – a message with strong Catholic undertones. Common Sense’s followers often refer to Antonio Gramsci’s theory of “cultural war” – according to which values are inherently in conflict and must be fought over – overlooking the irony of invoking an Italian Marxist to defend Catholicism.
While the march was meant to be nonpartisan and independent, Common Sense was specifically created as a part of the right-wing political apparatus under the Republicans’ predecessor, the Union for a Popular Movement. This mutually beneficial arrangement reenergized the party and furnished the movement with a larger platform. Common Sense emerged under Sarkozy’s watch, but it also affiliated with political leaders such as Fillon, whose position on religion was closely aligned with its own.
The way Fillon tells it, he prepared for the primaries by spending two years touring the country and asking the French people what they wanted. He then developed a dual program based on mass deregulation to liberate the economy and the defense of Catholic values, which explains his sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he sees as a defender of Christians in the Middle East. Common Sense has been a key interlocutor in creating this program, and its members repaid Fillon handsomely with massive turnout in the primary.
When the “March for all” began, some commentators derided the protestors as “zombie Catholics.” But much like Trump’s “basket of deplorables,” who wore pins embracing the nickname Hillary Clinton had bestowed on them, the mostly middle-class “zombie Catholics” started dressing the part, which only added to their allure.
When asked why they had taken to the streets, the protesters said they were defending their Catholic identity. Although France is officially secular, with church and state legally separated since 1905, French Catholicism has remained a dominant force, and many national holidays are in fact Christian.
French Catholics now feel as though their historically privileged position is under attack – by the rise of Islam and Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks, and by legislation that has increasingly challenged their way of life. For many conservative Catholics, same-sex marriage was a tipping point, while left-wing Catholics find themselves being crowded out by the right.
French politics has no analogue to America’s alt-right milieu – with its conspiracy theories, talk shows, online trolling, and fake news – that fueled Trump’s campaign. But Fillon’s supporters, too, reject multiculturalism and have responded to their status anxiety by dismissing expertise.
With France becoming less Catholic and the US becoming more diverse, their “zombie” armies’ political power will decay; but, as Trump’s election and Fillon’s political ascendance have shown, they cannot be written off just yet.