Last night's debate was surreal in several respects. Fillon's lead is all but insurmountable: not only did he beat Juppé by 16 points in round 1, but the third-place finisher, Sarkozy, advised his supporters to vote for Fillon, as did Bruno Le Maire.
Juppé's only chance this coming Sunday is therefore to mobilize a massive turnout of left-wing voters who would prefer him to Fillon's no-punches-pulled neo-Thatcherism. One might have expected him, therefore, to appeal to this electorate, but instead he offered them bupkis (if your Yiddish is weak, you can look it up). Expressions of mutual respect between the two men were frequent: "You've been my minister, François, and I've been yours" (le tutoiement was adhered to throughout). He pointed out, rightly, that the differences between his program and Fillon's--at least on paper--are largely differences of degree rather than intent: Fillon will reduce the number of civil servants by 500,000, Juppé by 250,000, etc. Needless to say, such honesty and politesse are not likely to give enough hope to Billancourt to fill the ballot boxes with votes for the quintessential énarque, who, though he has learned to moderate his contempt for the untutored, still confuses retail politics with a sans-faute performance on an oral exam.
As for those orals, both candidates were superb. Rhetorical polish is not in short supply in the Hexagon. Well-oiled glibness allowed both men to slip past embarrassing episodes in their past: Fillon described his "first demonstration" as a protest against an English teacher he considered incompetent, neglecting to mention that he was expelled for tossing a tear-gas grenade into the classroom, while Juppé prefaced an answer to a question about how he would deal with an indicted minister by pointing out that he himself had been not only indicted but condemned for corruption, prompting his "old friend François" to come to his rescue by saying nothing he had said should be taken to imply that he regarded "Alain" as anything less than superbly qualified to become France's next president.
In short, Fillon's strategy was to present, in true Thatcherite manner, a radical program for rolling back France's social model as though there were no alternative, while Juppé's strategy was to acknowledge the rationale for such an approach to governing, dissenting only to the extent of suggesting he would take a more pragmatic line and attempting to raise doubts about Fillon's commitment to protecting abortion rights and other "values" issues. I doubt that this will come anywhere near overcoming his deficit.
Hence François Fillon is likely to be the LR candidate. I have already said what I think this implies for the emergence of a center-left opponent. But what about Marine Le Pen? Fillon's victory was certainly unexpected, so she will need to revise her strategy, but I don't think she needs to do much. A part of la droite populaire, which failed to turn out for Sarkozy, has probably already deserted to Le Pen. Fillon is the candidate of the provincial bourgeoisie, of traditionalist Catholics, of family values. This worked in the LR primary, but only 4.7 million voters participated. Fillon's Thatcherism will be anathema to left-wing voters, to the millions of youths and union members and civil servants who took to the streets to protest the much milder Hollande reforms. If Fillon carries through with his promises to come in with guns blazing in his first hundred days, it's not hard to envision a long hot summer in 2017 (disrupting my vacation plans, I might add, but let's not be petty). It will take only a small pivot for Le Pen to present herself, as she already has to some extent, as the ultimate defender of the "French social model," at least as concerns les Français de souche. Welfare chauvinism will be her line against uninhibited market competition. And it is not impossible to envision this line as the winning ticket in round 2 against a Fillon who seems unwilling to make the slightest gesture to mollify left-wing voters set adrift by the chaos in their camp.
I am therefore deeply pessimistic. And I note, further, that Vladimir Putin now has two candidates in the French election, Fillon and Le Pen. Not to mention a friend in the White House. How many more refugees will be driven out of Syria by this prospect, and how many will reach Europe if Erdogan makes good on his threat to open the gates once again? The implications for the stability of the European Union do not need to be spelled out.