France's 'Mr Nobody' stuns all with victory
Ex-prime minister looks set to win 2017 Republican party nomination
Published 22/11/2016 | 02:30
His rivals called him Mr Nobody and Droopy. His former boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, privately dismissed him as a "sad case" and a pliant "employee".
Nobody - neither rivals, pollsters nor commentators - thought François Fillon stood a chance of clinching the French centre-right primaries.
Runaway favourite to win the nomination for his Republicans party next Sunday, the motor-racing enthusiast is in the driving seat for next May's presidential race against far-right leader Marine Le Pen, and a - for now - non-existent left-wing candidate.
Polling on a meagre 9-11pc of voter intentions two weeks ago, the unflappable Mr Fillon kept telling his friends and supporters he would come first.
On Sunday night, he stunned France by winning 44.1pc of the vote - light years ahead of Alain Juppé, the long-time favourite, on 28.2pc and Mr Sarkozy, knocked out of the race on 20.6pc.
It is both sweet revenge and a miraculous renaissance for this devout provincial Catholic and Mr Sarkozy's long-suffering former prime minister, after a spell in the political wilderness during which many key allies lost faith in his chances.
Starting out as a disciple of Philippe Séguin, a social Gaullist and anything but a Thatcherite, he worked his way up the echelons of French government from his power base in the Sarthe region some 200km west of Paris. It is here that he and his Welsh wife Penelope brought up their five children in a stunning 12th-century chateau, Le Manoir de Beaucé.
After various spells in the governments of Édouard Balladur and Jacques Chirac, where he notably stood down major street protests in 2003 to impose pension reforms, Mr Fillon forged an unlikely alliance with Mr Sarkozy, when he was denied a post in a Chirac reshuffle.
"People will remember nothing about Chirac except my reforms," he exclaimed, furious.
Although Mr Sarkozy's extravert, "bling" nature was poles apart from his provincial calm, the pair clicked and Mr Fillon toiled to draw up the programme that helped Mr Sarkozy win the 2007 presidential election and was made prime minister for his efforts.
Once in office, Mr Fillon had to endure being almost totally sidelined as the "hyperpresident" Sarkozy called all the shots and bypassed him to talk to cabinet ministers, famously dismissing his prime minister as a "collaborateur" (employee).
Soldiering on, Mr Fillon started to show signs of impatience within months, warning publicly that he was at the "head of bankrupt state".
"Who does he think he is?" roared Mr Sarkozy to aides.
The truth is, he was always closer to a true economic and social conservative than Mr Sarkozy. Speaking in 2014 at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty in London, Mr Fillon said: "We used to favour social justice over liberty. No longer.
"I feel a real revolt, a desire for more freedom, less State intervention in either economic or private lives."
Mr Fillon felt frustrated when Mr Sarkozy quashed his attempts to impose a minimum service during state sector strikes in all public services, including schools.
But he remained loyal, becoming one of the few prime ministers to last an entire presidential term. "François is so two-faced," mocked Mr Sarkozy by way of recompense.
When Mr Sarkozy lost in 2012, Mr Fillon left the prime minister's office literally a broken man, with such bad back problems he could barely walk.
Leaving his fiefdom of Sarthe, he became MP of the wealthy 7th arrondissement from where he hoped to take over the centre-right UMP.
Despite the backing of party barons, weakened by a scooter accident and wracked by kidney stone problems, Mr Fillon's campaign against Jean-François Copé faltered as his rival gained the support of party faithful by veering hard-right.
When the outcome proved too close to call, Mr Fillon accused his adversary of massive vote-rigging, unilaterally claimed victory and formed his own parliamentary group, which he dropped only when the party was temporarily taken over by a triumvirate.
Increasingly isolated, Mr Fillon stunned colleagues by launching his bid for presidential primaries in May 2013 and started working on a programme, setting about drawing up economic and social reforms far more radical than his opponents. These call for an "electroshock" for France, including hacking away at France's rigid labour laws to make it easier to hire and fire, reining in welfare benefits, scrapping the 35-hour working week, slashing half-a-million state sector workers and cutting state spending by €100bn in five years.
Current polls suggest he stands to beat Mr Juppé next Sunday to lead the centre-right and take on Marine Le Pen in presidential elections next April and May.