A French survivor takes the wheel

Give a French journalist a good, meaty subject to write about, and he'll spin it with purple prosery till the cows come home.

Give a French journalist a good, meaty subject to write about, and he'll spin it with purple prosery till the cows come home.

Every snippet about the public and private lives of the new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, seems to have been sifted through. So what about Francois Fillon, whom Sarko appointed as his prime minister just a couple of weeks ago?

He's been on the edge of politics for years. But though his links with Paris have been numerous, it could not have been said he ever committed himself. About five years ago, it was Sarkozy who observed: “He is neither effective nor popular”. Political careers have been snuffed out for much lesser strikes.

But Fillon is a survivor. Could be that an inner strength was provided by his strictly observed Catholic life at home and at school. His father was a Gaullist notaire, his mother a Basque and professor of English.

The young Fillon allowed himself one breakout. During the political upheaval of May 1968 he chalked slogans on walls and sang The Internationale. He was 14. It was all a youthful experience, which was soon forgotten. As was his discovery that he wasn't cut out for distributing Communist posters.

There was, however, a noisy attraction which caught his imagination - the racing cars in the 24-hour race at Le Mans. He dreamed of becoming a driver himself. On his home ground of La Sarthe (next door to Le Mans) the passion grew, as they were also to do at Monza, Indianapolis and Monaco.

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The boy, behind a placid Petit Bourgeois exterior, exercised one over-ruling force - speed, and its prolonged roar. Then he found another diversion, to no one more surprising than to himself. He became mad about winter sports.

At this period, Jacques Chirac was in full control in political Paris through his “soldiers of Napoleon”, his ardent followers. He fought a ferocious battle of words with the Old Guard Gaullists. After each confrontation, several skeletons in cupboards were left behind.

In 1981 Fillon, at 27, became the new député (Member of Parliament) for his home track of La Sarthe. By so doing, he became biblical Benjamin - the youngest member - of the Assemblée Nationale. Over the next two decades Fillon moved up and down. He and Chirac had a poor relationship in the mid-80s, with the President treating him with hardly concealed contempt. But others found him a valuable aid. The placid François revealed himself as a redoubtable tactician.

As the manoeuvring for patronage and power went on, François hesitated. He didn't dare to make the crucial decision. Finally he lined up behind President Chirac, where his tactical flair was recognised - but not enough for Chirac to give him a place at the centre of things.

Instead he chose the provincial Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose power base was The Vienne and the city of Poitiers, where he was born and brought up. Once more, Fillon was left behind, “Why am I always the bridesmaid, never the blushing bride?”

Everyone was waiting for him to be given the defence portfolio. Instead, he was handed a real minefield, the social affairs ministry. His mission, to take the sting out of the deeply contentious 35-hour week. It took a whole year to achieve the initial aims, which ironically needed many through-the-night sessions.

Fillon's reward was the role of député of La Sarthe, his home ground. In his usual way, he created no fuss, didn't brag, but went smoothly to work. It was said of him that “placidity, prudence and discretion are his master words”. In the Sarthe, “he took the pulse of his constituents regularly”.

When Dominique de Villepin left the stage, it was the moment for Fillon to make the jump back to Sarkozy, “the Little One”. Only a few months afterwards, François had become the indispensable man, the political councillor listened to by all.

Was this the man of whom we have heard so much, and about Chirac's contempt for him? About Sarkozy's change of feeling towards him: “Me, I have not changed. In 1999 I asked you to join us. Today, I do so again.”

When Fillon decided to rejoin Sarkozy, the future President said, in classic car parlance: “I know I have all around me a fine machine” - a reference that Fillon will have appreciated. He is a widely experienced driver, who has worked at a high level. When he is at a meet at Sarthe, he mixes with the wealthy, with notables, with officials.

Then he leaves, quietly, in the night, to follow the course, alone. Without journalists. Without photographers. And without Sarkozy.

With acknowledgements to Serge Raffy, Challenges magazine, Paris.