In early October François Fillon was ranked fourth in opinion polls among the seven candidates seeking the centre-right nomination for next year’s French presidential elections, with a score of 12 per cent.
Yet on Sunday, in the first round of primary voting, Mr Fillon secured almost half the votes, a feat that put him 16 percentage points ahead of frontrunner Alain Juppé and 24 points ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president.
What happened? Mr Fillon had always distrusted the polls: the right had never held a primary before and no one knew how many people would pay €2 to vote. He was confident that, although “militant” members of the Republicans would vote for Mr Sarkozy, until August the party’s leader, many others would turn out too.
He was right; the 4m votes cast exceeded all expectations. Mr Fillon was equally sure Mr Juppé owed much of his success to being the anti-Sarkozy candidate and that his support would fall once voters saw that there was another credible centre-right candidate.
Mr Fillon’s prospects were transformed when he emerged as a clear winner in the three candidates’ debates. His polling numbers surged, helped by Mr Sarkozy’s attacks on Mr Juppé, whom he saw — wrongly — as his greatest threat.
Mr Fillon had previously struggled to escape his image as Mr Sarkozy’s number two — a man who stayed on as prime minister for a full term when friends were advising him to resign. He put loyalty first but remained his own man, announcing on one occasion that he was the prime minister of a bankrupt country.
Since leaving office, he has campaigned across the country, going to places other candidates ignored. He heard everywhere that, despite the support of the party apparatus for Mr Sarkozy, France did not want another five years of the former president. But the country did want change, as President François Hollande’s historically low approval ratings have shown.
Mr Fillon was careful to underline his credentials as a free-market reformer and as a social conservative deeply attached to his Catholic faith. He is opposed to abortion as a fundamental right, though he has no intention of revisiting existing laws.
He is personally opposed to same-sex marriage and adoption but again has no intention of changing the law. And he wants France to take a tougher line on radical Islam.
Above all, in each of the debates he showed a mastery of detail and a plan for the country that began to persuade people that he was not only up to the job but also that he could beat Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. She is expected to make it to the second round of the presidential election in May.
With Mr Sarkozy’s endorsement, there is every chance that Mr Fillon will win the nomination in the run-off against Mr Juppé on Sunday. At his side will be Penelope, his Welsh wife, raising the prospect of France for the first time having a president with a British wife. But we should not see Mr Fillon as a passionate Anglophile. He regrets Britain’s vote to leave the EU because he thinks Europe is weaker without the UK. He also thinks the prospect of Britain exiting the bloc undermines the case for keeping UK immigration controls on French territory.
Mr Fillon, a strong supporter of Nato, has a different vision of how to manage relations with Moscow. He has long opposed economic sanctions in response to the occupation of Crimea. He sees the Russian military presence in Syria as potentially helpful in bringing the conflict to an end — not that different from the view of US President-elect Donald Trump. If France chooses Mr Fillon as its next president, quite a lot could change, at home and abroad.
The writer is a former UK ambassador to France and the US
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