Presidential rivals battle for soul of French family

The battle for France's coveted right-wing presidential nomination has become a contest among two visions of French society: one traditionalist, the other more progressive, but both claiming the mantle of Pope Francis.

Presidential rivals battle for soul of French family
Photo: AFP

Ahead of the second round of the US-style primary on Sunday, with the winner tipped to become France's next president, frontrunner Francois Fillon and his rival Alain Juppe traded barbs over abortion, gay marriage and the pontiff's teachings.

Fillon, a devout Catholic father of five, surged from behind in the first round of the primary last Sunday to take the top spot on a platform of radical economic reforms and social conservatism.

His supporters include some of the tens of thousands of people who demonstrated against a gay marriage bill in 2013.

Fillon has ruled out revoking the law but pledged to amend it to prevent gay couples from being able to adopt children.

The 62-year-old solicitor's son, who voted in 1982 against decriminalising homosexuality, has also said he personally disapproves of abortion but supports a landmark 1975 law making terminations legal.

Juppe, a twice-married 71-year-old “agnostic Catholic” who like Fillon is a former prime minister, on Tuesday blasted his rival's “extremely traditionalist, not to say slightly retrograde view on the role of women, family and marriage”.

Fillon, he said, should “clarify his position” on abortion — drawing a furious reaction from his opponent, who reiterated that he supported women's right to choose and accused his rival of hitting “below the belt”.

Desperate to make up ground on Fillon, who led the first round by 18 percentage points, Juppe also invoked Pope Francis —  a rare campaign reference in secular France.

The Bordeaux mayor suggested his positions were closer than his rival's to those of the modernising pontiff.

“You have to… keep in step with the times,” he said.

Fillon hit back at what he called the “ultra-grotesque” stereotyping of him as a “reactionary from the Middle Ages”.

“I make no apologies for having values,” he told Europe 1 radio on Wednesday, declaring that on “most” of the subjects raised by Juppe “Pope Francis says the same thing as I do”.

Catholic clout

In a primary campaign that has focused mainly on France's ailing economy, immigration and security after a wave of jihadist attacks, the sudden emphasis on societal issues reflects the importance of the Catholic vote.

While practising Catholics make up only about 10 percent of the population, “they are far more likely to vote than average, which gives them more clout,” Jerome Fourquet of Ifop pollsters told AFP, estimating that they make up 15 percent of the national electorate.

Aware that their support could be key to winning the nomination, Juppe has balked at extending rights for gay couples beyond marriage to areas such as fertility treatment.

Like Fillon, he opposes giving lesbians access to IVF and supports a continued ban on surrogacy — one of the paths to parenthood taken by gay men.

At the prestigious Stanislas Catholic school in central Paris, parents and teachers were divided on the candidates' merits.

“I voted Fillon because of his positions on family and homosexuality,” said Camille Roullier, a 38-year-old mother.

Mathilde, a 31-year-old teacher who declined to give her surname, said she too supported the man from the north-central city of Le Mans because of his position on gay adoptions.

But another of the teachers, Amedeo, 59, endorsed Juppe.

“I'm for a 'live and let live' approach,” he said.

In an editorial, the leftist daily Liberation portrayed Fillon as the standard bearer of an “aggressive, activist, political Catholicism that mirrors political Islam”.

But the managing editor of La Vie, a Christian weekly, rejected the idea.

“There is no political Catholicism in France and there never will be,” Jean-Pierre Denis said, noting that a Christian Democrat candidate knocked out of the primary in the first round had mustered only 1.5 percent of the vote.

by AFP's Beatrice Le Bohec and Benoît Fauchet

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Fillon ridiculed for saying he can’t save money (despite being on €13,000 a month)

French presidential candidate François Fillon was lambasted on Monday after claiming he wasn’t good at saving money. French news sites and social media users were quick to point out his healthy salary.

Fillon ridiculed for saying he can’t save money (despite being on €13,000 a month)
Photo: AFP

Fillon opened himself up for more yet more stinging criticism on Monday when he told BFM TV interviewer Jean-Jacques Bourdin that he struggled to put money aside.

Fillon, whose campaign has wobbled over allegations of fake jobs and free deluxe suits, was immediately blasted and mocked on social media and became the top story on French news sites.

His words immediately trended on Twitter where some pointed out that if he couldn’t sort out his own money then he shouldn’t be put in charge of the country’s.

Others were simply angered and accused him of being “disconnected from reality”.

“Shameful. When you know that most people in France are deprived of healthcare, food and leisure,” said one angry Tweeter.

While Fillon’s words may not have been the worst thing a politician has ever said the problem for the candidate is that his wealth is there for all to see, as most French newspapers were quick to point out.

As an MP in Paris he earns €7,200 a month and also has access to an extra €5,770 (tax free) to cover his costs.

On top of that Fillon opened his own consultancy company in 2012 called 2F Conseil which according to Le Monde newspaper pulled in €750,000 in three years.

In the declaration of his assets to the High Authority for the Transparency of Public Life Fillon was shown to have several bank accounts and life insurance policies worth around €100,000, according to Le Parisien.

READ ALSO: Take a closer look at François Fillon's manor in rural France

Take a closer look at François Fillon's manor in rural France

And those outraged by his words on Monday were quick to point out that the candidate lives in a chateau, which along with his other properties, are believed to be worth €750,000.

That’s not to mention the hundreds of thousands of euros his wife earned as a parliamentary assistant over the years.

According to France’s Observation of Inegalities Fillon’s monthly salary is better than 96 percent of all French workers.

Fillon’s words might not have caused such an uproar if it wasn’t for the fact that his plans to turn around France’s struggling economy are based on imposing harsh austerity.

Fillon wants to save €100 billion over five years as well as raise the retirement age, hike the legal working week from 35 to 39 hours and ditch 500,000 public service posts.

The candidate has suffered in the polls in recent weeks and trails behind Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, but he still believes he can overcome the odds and make the second round run-off vote.

Despite his troubles he still enjoys strong support among his base, who like Fillon, believe he is the victim of a media witch-hunt and a politically-motivated smear campaign.

They believe he has the best programme to turn France around.