Paris — Among the electoral upsets in this year of Brexit and Donald Trump, the sudden rise of François Fillon to become the conservative candidate for France's presidential election next spring must rank as the most unexpected.
Equally unforeseen was the role religion played in rallying Catholic voters behind him in a highly-secularized society where politicians rarely, if ever, speak of faith.
Fillon was polling about 10 percent a few weeks before the primary for his Republicans party's nomination began last month. That surged to 44 percent in the Nov. 20 first round of voting and 66 percent in the decisive runoff a week later.
This ended the comeback hopes of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and pushed the assumed frontrunner Alain Juppé, a centrist former prime minister, into a distant second place.
With little time to catch up, Juppé switched from criticizing Fillon's staunch free-market ideas to painting him as a closet culture warrior. Fillon, he said, was a traditionalist Catholic backed by the far-right who had "backward" views about women's rights and might outlaw abortion.
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Juppé, 71, a self-described "agnostic Catholic" with a more moderate platform, began playing up the religion angle himself. "I'm a Catholic, I've been baptized. … I tell my fellow Catholics that I'm closer to the thinking of Pope Francis," he insisted.
Fillon promptly fired back. "After calling me an ultra-free marketeer, I am now being presented as a medieval reactionary. This is grotesque and ridiculous," he said. "I never thought my friend Alain Juppé would stoop so low."
Juppé's born-again strategy did him no good and Fillon, 62, and also a former prime minister, trounced him in the runoff. Fillon is now the Republicans candidate and will probably face far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential election runoff in May.
After ignoring him for most of the campaign, pollsters and analysts reviewing Fillon's campaign found he drew strong support from family-oriented Catholics around the country who felt ignored by the Socialist government in Paris and taken for granted by other politicians on the center-right.
Jérôme Fourquet of the IFOP polling group noted that practicing Catholics made up only 15 percent of the primary electorate but tended to turn out more than other voters. "This electorate surely was part of this strong surge in the past few days," he said.
In traditionally Catholic France, about two-thirds of the population claim a Catholic background but fewer than 10 percent are regular churchgoers. Pollsters differentiate between "Catholics" and "practicing Catholics" because the former group is so large and the latter usually more conservative.
As an experienced law-and-order man with long experience in government, the mild-mannered Fillon naturally appeals to these voters. He also has no skeletons in the closet, in contrast to Juppé's conviction for abuse of public funds years ago.
But the pre-vote public focus on Fillon, an admirer of Britain's late Margaret Thatcher, was on how unpopular his proposals to revive the economy would be. The French like a strong state that provides jobs and assures generous social services, but he has pledged to reduce civil service jobs, raise working hours, push back the retirement age and shrink the health care system.
A key pillar of Fillon's Catholic support was Sens Commun ("Common Sense"), an association of activists founded after several massive, church-backed street protests in 2013 failed to block the Socialists from legalizing same-sex marriage and full adoption rights for gay couples.
Although they could not stop the marriage reform, the protesters forced the government to drop plans to allow assisted reproduction for lesbian couples and surrogate motherhood for gay unions.
Sens Commun is the most prominent of several discussion circles and prayer groups founded by the newly mobilized protesters to keep their movement alive. It eventually joined the Republicans party to lobby for its ideas there.
The group now claims about 9,000 members around the country, including about 275 local elected officials. Some 130 members joined the Fillon campaign and helped organize around 200 meetings with voters, Christophe Billan, Sens Commun leader, said.
"Our movement also has a large number of young activists who know all about social media. This helps us work outside of the media cliches," he said.
Fillon was not their ideal candidate but the closest they could find, Billan said. For example, Fillon does not want to repeal the gay-marriage law because, as he put it "one cannot unmarry people who are already married." He also considers abortion, which was legalized in 1975, as a settled issue and never tried during five years as prime minister to change it.
Fillon was the first candidate to respond positively to the bishops' conference after it issued a "Faithful Citizenship"-type statement urging Catholics to go vote. He addressed an open letter to the many Catholics who work in volunteer charities helping the poor.
Fillon also pledged to raise state allocations to families, a voter group hardly mentioned by the other candidates.
In a country on edge after several massacres by radical Islamists, including the murder of a priest in his church near Rouen in July, Fillon reassured Catholic voters with a tough line against Islamist radicals and frequently expressed support for oppressed Christians in the Middle East.
Since France tends to keep religion out of politics, many politicians respond to Islamist radicalism with calls for even tighter restrictions on religion in public.
"We don't have a problem with religion, we have a problem with Islam," Fillon countered in September. "Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists and Sikhs don't threaten our country's values. It's only the fundamentalist surge inflaming the Muslim world that is a threat to our society."
By contrast, Juppé led a centrist campaign, as if he was already running in the national election rather than a conservative primary. Instead of Fillon's pledge to stand up for "French values," Juppé stressed his model of a "happy identity" in a more multicultural society.
After his victory, Le Pen's anti-immigrant National Front nervously blasted Fillon as a radical free marketeer who would destroy France's welfare state. It would have preferred any rival but Fillon, who could win back some Catholics who have drifted over to the far-right under the current Socialist government.
A snap poll after the second-round voting showed Fillon would trounce Le Pen by 66 to 34 percent in the presidential runoff in May. Thanks to the unpopular President François Hollande, who declined to run Dec. 1, the as yet unnamed Socialist candidate would come in behind them.
[Tom Heneghan is the Paris correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]