PARIS (Reuters) - France’s Francois Fillon, surprise frontrunner after Sunday’s conservative primary ballot on a contender for next year’s presidential election, could be the closest thing his country has to a true economic and social conservative.
Behind his still-boyish looks and a mild, refined demeanor, the 62-year-old who has spent almost half of his life in politics wants to slash the cost of government - to a large extent by cutting public service jobs.
An admirer of late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - not at all a popular figure in France - Fillon stood down big street protests in 2003 when he championed reforms extending the age at which people are entitled to retirement pension payments.
Last week, when opinion polls ranked him as an outsider, his proposal of market-oriented reforms went beyond what his rivals preferred in a country where the dirigiste state remains, even on the center-right, a staple - unlike conservative and liberal positions in the United States or Britain.
Having won over 44 percent of the first-round vote according to preliminary results, Fillon now enters a run-off next Sunday against Alain Juppe, who garnered less than 30 percent.
A Sunday night opinion poll after the first round vote said Fillon would win that contest.
Fillon, who loves driving racing cars at the famous Le Mans circuit near his political fiefdom in the west of France, was prime minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012.
His former boss, who lost the 2012 election to Socialist Francois Hollande and on Sunday saw his political comeback dissolve before his eyes as he came third - meaning eliminated - in the vote, once famously described Fillon as effectively no more than a senior member of staff, calling him in French his “collaborateur”.
That relationship was a two-way street though.
With his hallmark hard line against government overspending, Fillon sought to distance himself from Sarkozy when an international debt crisis erupted in 2008, calling his own country “bankrupt”.
That view has returned as the backbone of Fillon’s 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 Juppe.
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, adversaries of Fillon have balked at proposing such deep cuts for fear of accusations that police staffing could suffer.
Former boss Sarkozy stands accused of cutting 10,000 police jobs while president - 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 VS LE PEN RUN-OFF?
Fillon has been particularly scathing of Sarkozy during the campaign, taking aim at the fact he is under judicial investigation over alleged past election funding irregularities.
On Sunday night, though, he said “defeat should not humiliate anyone because we will need everyone,” adding “I have a particular thought for Nicolas Sarkozy”.
Sarkozy also endorsed him for the second round.
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.
Polls have shown that Juppe would beat far right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in a likely run-off vote for the presidency itself next May by attracting a broad church of centrists, the mainstream right, and left wing voters keen to keep the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic Le Pen out of power.
But pollsters are trusted less since the surprise Trump victory, and recent polls have in any case not tested a Fillon-Le Pen run-off, even though some political risk analysts say it would improve Le Pen’s chances of winning.
In a recent TV 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,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Andrew Callus