According to the polls, François Fillon had little chance of getting elected as the French presidential candidate for the centre right. The media had planned for every eventuality during the Republican primary, except Fillon’s victory. Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy were set to be the finalists, with Alain Juppé as the favourite to win. Juppé’s team was already planning his successful race to the Elysée, rather than just focusing on winning the first round.
Since 2013, I have supported François Fillon and the re-activation of his personal movement, the “Force Républicaine”. I was convinced by the agenda that he’s been advancing since 2005, both during Jacques Chirac’s Presidency and in his excellent book “La France peut supporter la vérité” (“France can stand the truth”), published in 2006.
After several months of campaigning, here’s the big lesson that we have learned on this journey: in today chaotic world, where people feel a tremendous sense of uncertainty, there is one thing that voters really desire – strong leadership and a steady hand.
The Quest for Strong Leaders
A two weeks before the vote for the French right primary, against all odds, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America. And who could have foreseen the Brexit result? Was this a case of voters looking for change, or rather voters responding to change?
My background is in information technology. In tech, change is moving ever-faster, disrupting long-established patterns and conventions. Robots, artificial intelligence and smart cars are already a part of our everyday thinking. Soon they’ll be part of our everyday lives. For the average voter, that is a lot of change to contemplate all at once. Many complain of feeling overwhelmed by it. Terrorism, the migrant crisis, and the seeming unstoppable emergence of the “global village” are further contributing to this feeling of being in the middle of a period of chaotic transition – from the relative security of the old way of living, into the unknown. Not to mention the end of “the End of history” narrative, as Fukyama once called this old era of global peace and prosperity. The last decade has seen the return of a Bismarckian Russia and the rise of China as a global superpower. Wherever voters now look they see threats and uncertainty.
In this context, François Fillon’s victory is less surprising. A key lesson from the recent elections: voters are not looking for a ‘free-market’ or a ‘socialist’ leader, or for a ‘skilled’ or ‘charismatic’ leader; they are looking for a true ‘boss’ figure, someone who is able to bring stability where there is uncertainty.
François Fillon’s profile certainly matches this role. He has classical liberal views on the economy, combined with a strong sense of national pride and traditional values. His attitude embodies the seriousness of the moment, inspired by General de Gaulle: he barely smiles, he doesn’t use political tricks or gimmicks, he wears traditional business suits, he frequently talks of his love of the countryside (la France profonde – the French heartland), describing himself as a “gentleman farmer”. Fillon is also a huge fan of sport cars and climbing, which is an interesting paradox when you consider his very reserved and quiet temperament. Still, to the average voter this too inspires confidence: he clearly has the nerve to handle tricky situations.
This emphasis on a very traditional leadership profile didn’t mean Fillon’s campaign wasn’t willing to engage with modern campaign realities. On the contrary, we did what we could to maximize the use of the online tools modern political campaigns have at their disposal – anything from shaping the design of his campaign logo, and building a website based on his campaign priorities, to his data-collection strategy, using the popular ‘Nation Builder’ platform that we deployed with his team. We also worked on developing the most effective social media mobilisation strategy. Here my firm Jin worked with the well-known PR consulting agency Image7, as well as with the Fosbury creative team, always under the auspices of the candidate’s campaign leadership.
The choice of a logo may seem an insignificant exercise, but in campaign terms a logo is actually a key instrument for communicating with voters. If successful, a logo conveys the core ideas about a candidate. The logo that we eventually came up with was a combination of his name and the historical “Croix de Lorraine”, the Formula 1 logotype and the colours of the French flag. It expressed at once strong identity, speed, tradition and confidence – exactly the type of leadership qualities primary voters were looking for.
Our main advice to the candidate was to personalise his campaign and bring forward the claim “Fillon 2017”. As a former prime minister and well-established politician, he now had to become someone ready for the challenge, eager to take up the fight on behalf of the country – to lead. We suggested replacing the former “Force Républicaine” – his personal movement – by a Fillon-centric website, making it all about his background, his biography, his passions and his projects. We insisted on building a great online reputation for him, using biographical content, pictures and video. We wanted to let people discover the Leader in person. This campaign would be all about him, not about his political infrastructure or his ideology. Ideas mattered, but only as a way of communicating the fact that Fillon was a man ready to take tough decisions on behalf of the French people.
In the end, the main lesson of the primary season was that, to voters today, leadership matters more than detailed policy options. In times of trouble and change, people are looking for statesmanship. They want a steady hand to guide them through uncertain times, not someone who obsesses about political theory. Now the big race is about to start. We’re still waiting for Fillon’s opponent to be designated by the left-wing primary in January. There’s no doubt however that the former prime minister is the kind of leader the French people want. A strong leader who will cope with this uncertain new world, helping France to preserve our national identity, able to carry out the necessary changes to allow us to remain a great nation.
Edouard Fillias is CEO and co-founder of Jin, a strategic communication agency based in Paris, London and Hamburg. He works as a consultant for the presidential campaign of François Fillon, focusing on digital influence, creative ideas, websites and design.