Fillon, mild-mannered conservative vying to succeed Sarkozy

19th November 2012, Comments 0 comments

Francois Fillon, the ex-prime minister locked in a shambolic election battle to lead France's right-wing UMP opposition, is a traditional conservative who hopes to steer the party back to the centre-right.

He managed to remain personally popular as prime minister for five years under Nicolas Sarkozy even as the then president plummeted in the opinion polls, and he went into the party leadership race as the clear favourite.

Fillon, 58, is a quiet and urbane man, sometimes accused of being staid, whose steady temperament is in stark contrast to the impulsive and hyperactive Sarkozy.

He has sought to portray himself as a statesman and accuses Jean-Francois Cope, his populist rival for the UMP top job, of potentially splitting the party by following Sarkozy's lead and pandering to the hard-right with his tough talk on immigration and Islam.

Fillon, a motor-racing fan and lover of the countryside, says he is ready to stand for the presidency in the 2017 election, while Cope has said he would stand aside in that battle if Sarkozy choses to make a comeback.

Fillon was appointed prime minister when Sarkozy became president in 2007 and stayed in that job -- surviving several government reshuffles -- until his boss was ousted by the Socialist Francois Hollande in May this year.

Beneath his courteous exterior, Fillon is a born competitor, says Christine Kelly, who wrote a biography of the son of a notary and an historian who became a member of parliament at age 27.

A lawyer by training, Fillon was born in the Sarthe region of western France and is married to a Welsh woman, Penelope, with whom he has five children.

His wife says she feels more comfortable at their family home at Sable-sur-Sarthe than in the official Matignon residence in Paris.

Fillon is always impeccably groomed, like a conservative provincial dignitary, and in his spare time he likes to read the Romantic literature of Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, walk in the mountains or race cars.

Politically, Fillon represents the one nation branch of the French right, previously embodied in Gaullism. He voted "no" to the European Union's 1992 Maastricht treaty before evolving into a more open position.

During his time in charge of several ministerial portfolios, including social affairs and education, Fillon acquired a reputation as a reformer. He passed a key pension reform in 2003.

He was kicked out of former president Jacques Chirac's government two years later, which pushed him into the arms of his former rival, Sarkozy.

"Nicolas Sarkozy has never been my mentor," Fillon once replied sharply when asked about his relationship with the ex-president, explaining that their closeness was the result of an alliance made ahead of the 2007 presidential election.

In the current battle to succeed Sarkozy at the helm of the UMP party, both candidates have been claiming victory amid accusations of vote-rigging.

Both camps claimed there had been irregularities and some cheating in voting in several areas and it was unclear how long it would take the electoral commission to check the ballots and announce a winner.

© 2012 AFP

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