TOPSHOT - Candidate for the right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party primaries ahead of the 2017 presidential election and former French prime minister, Francois Fillon reacts at his campaign headquarters after finishing first of the first round of the rightwing presidential primary, on November 20, 2016 in Paris.  / AFP / POOL / Thomas SAMSON        (Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

5 Things You Need to Know About Francois Fillon — The French Margaret Thatcher

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By Nahema Marchal | 7:38 am, November 24, 2016

After a stunning victory in the first round of the French right-wing primaries on Sunday— that saw former president Nicolas Sarkozy unexpectedly crash out — Francois Fillon, former PM and self-described ‘Thatcherite’, is now the new favorite to clinch the Republican nomination. He will compete in this year’s high-stakes presidential runoff, where he could face far-right darling Marine Le Pen.

Here are 5 things you need to know about the French ‘Margaret Thatcher’:

1.He really does love Margaret Thatcher

The analogy can be risky in a country that never fully embraced Reagan-style ‘laissez-faire’ neoliberalism, but it is certainly not a trivial one.

Francois Fillon is an unbounded admirer of the Iron Lady, whom he credits with getting the United Kingdom back on track when it was on the brink of economic disaster in the 1980s.

“Some candidates wanted to be unkind by calling me Thatcherite, but it pleased me,” he said recently, brushing off attacks from his rivals who wanted to cast him in a negative light, adding: “At least she left her mark as someone who straightened out her country.”

For Fillon, who was himself Prime Minister for five years under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the Conservative British Prime Minister is a symbol of an “inflexible political determination to stop a situation of decline.”

Not without humor, left leaning French newspaper Liberation took the comparison to a whole new level in this week’s issue.

2. He is a “pro business” candidate

Fillon’s avowedly Thatcherite views are grounded in a pragmatic and ‘hands off’ approach to economic policy.

Breaking away from the traditional French penchant for statism, Fillon promises a “radical rupture” from the ways of the past to kickstart France’s sluggish economy.

“Since the post-war period, France has never had a Thatcherian revolution, or realistic reforms like those of Gerhardt Schroeder in Germany,” he lamented in the columns of the Telegraph in 2014.

For Fillon “the more taxes there are, the fewer jobs there are” and the country is in dire need of market reform. He wants to make France more business-friendly by smoothing out its rigid labor laws, slashing public sector jobs over the course of five years and reducing corporate levies.

3. He vows to defend France’s “Christian roots”

Francois Fillon’s growing popularity among the Catholic right hinges on his broad appeal to socially conservative and “traditional” family values. He condemns abortion in private, and has come out publicly against surrogacy, medically assisted procreation for lesbian couples, and same-sex marriage.

And if he is not as thunderous on questions of ” identity” as his opponent and former leader Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon still holds strong views on the role of Islam in French society. He has vowed to defend France’s “Christian roots” and fellow moderate Muslim citizens from corruption by “Radical Islam.” This summer, for instance, he endorsed a controversial proposition to ban burkinis (full-body swimsuits) from French beaches.

In the wake of the wave of terrorist attacks that hit France last year, he published  Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism — a book that won him broad support from the right in which he promised to stop “the bloody invasion of Islamism into our daily life” in case it heralds the beginning of “a third world war.”

4. Like president-elect Trump, he is a Russophile

If few mainstream European politicians warrant a comparison with the new president-Elect, Francois Fillon and Donald Trump nonetheless have at least one thing in common: a desire to mend ties with Russia.

Fillon is an outspoken advocate of detente. He believes President Vladimir Putin is a key ally in defeating ISIS in Syria and protecting Christian minorities and has in the past condemned the European sanctions leveled against Russia over the annexation of Crimea.

5. He is married to a Welsh woman

The discreet wife of Francois Fillon, Penelope Kathryn Fillon, hails from Abergavenny in Wales. Although she rarely appears on camera, the “woman of the shadows” has supported her husband throughout his political career. The pair met at the Sorbonne in the 1970s and have been inseparable ever since.

They have five children together.

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