PARIS (Reuters) - French presidential hopeful Francois Fillon, who has made a surprise jump in opinion polls just before a party primary on Sunday, has the political instincts of a true conservative.
Behind a mild, refined demeanor, the 62-year-old is a hard-hitter bent on slashing the cost of government, mostly by axing public service jobs.
“I want to give the country its liberty back!” Fillon told a rally on Friday, promising to do away with the 35-hour working week, drastically cut public spending and slash red tape in the health sector.
An admirer of late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as Labour and Social Affairs Minister he faced down street protests in 2003 over his retirement pension age reforms.
Thatcher is hardly a popular figure in France, where proposals for market-oriented reform often arouse protest.
“I’m tagged with a liberal label as one would once, in the Middle Ages, paint crosses on the doors of lepers,” Fillon said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.
“But I’m just a pragmatist.”
Fillon served as prime minister under then President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. Sarkozy lost the 2012 election to Socialist Francois Hollande, but Fillon avoided the disdain that was heaped upon his boss.
With his hallmark line on government overspending, Fillon sought to distance himself from Sarkozy when an international debt crisis erupted in 2008, calling his own country “bankrupt”.
That statement has returned as the backbone of his manifesto, which demands cost-cutting on a scale to which his rivals do not dare commit in a country with one of Europe’s highest public expenditure levels.
Fillon says he will get rid of 500,000 public sector jobs in five years, a proposal dismissed as implausible by Sarkozy and presidential favorite Alain Juppe.
Both men have an edge on Fillon in opinion polls but that has shrunk ahead of a Sunday first round primary over who should stand as Les Republicains party candidate in the presidential election set for April and May next year.
Born in the Sarthe region some 200 km west of Paris, where secular France’s Roman Catholic roots remain strong, Fillon has also distinguished himself by opposing the adoption of children by gay couples.
He is married to the Welsh-born Penelope and they have five children. He was the youngest member of France’s parliament when he was first elected 35 years ago.
Fillon argues that his cost-cutting plan is doable if people on the public payroll work 39 hours a week instead of 35 or less currently.
In a country where more than 230 people have been killed in Islamist militant attacks over the past two years, political adversaries of Fillon have balked at proposing such deep cuts for fear of accusations that police staffing could suffer.
Sarkozy already stands accused of cutting 10,000 police jobs while president between 2007 and 2012 - a policy that the ruling Socialists have mostly reversed through new recruitment since the attacks.
Juppe, who bowed out after big strikes over planned welfare cuts and pension reform when prime minister in the mid-1990s, says Fillon simply cannot deliver on his cut-backs promise.
Fillon hopes his credentials will get him through Sunday’s contest to the final duel on Nov. 27 for Les Republicains’ ticket.
He is in third place in polls in the primary contest but has closed the gap on the two frontrunners to an extent that makes him a contender for the two-horse race. He was seen as the winner of the final debate on Thursday before the primary.
Fillon has been particularly scathing of Sarkozy during the campaign, taking aim at the fact he is under investigation over alleged past election funding irregularities.
Asked on BFM TV on Friday whether he could bring himself to vote for a person who is under judicial investigation, he said: “It’s in order to avoid that situation that I want to win this election.”
A potent factor in the suspense over the primaries is Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, whom pollsters and the media tipped as winner up to the final hours of the U.S. presidential election.
In the debate, Fillon had urged voters: “The French are proud and don’t like to be told what to do.”
“Don’t be afraid to contradict opinion polls and the media that had decided it all for you. Vote for what you believe in.”
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Callus and Angus MacSwan