Who Is Francois Fillon and Why Has He Got Europe's Attention?

A tall, dark Frenchman has got pulses racing across Europe.

Francois Fillon, a former prime minister of France and economic liberal, moved from behind Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy in the country's center-right presidential primary to win the first round of voting on Sunday. He will now face off against Juppé, the Bordeaux mayor who had been the favorite to win, in the second round.

So why does Fillon have everyone talking? It's largely because of how he relates to two of Europe's biggest figures of political concern: National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Le Pen, and her chances of victory or defeat in the presidential election proper in spring 2017, is the topic of discussion for France's political classes and moderates across Europe. Charismatic and disciplined, Le Pen has spent years gradually rehabilitating the image of the far-right National Front, winning local and regional elections and preparing for a shot at the presidency.

Most polls suggest that Le Pen will make it past the first round of voting in the presidential election. Once there, she is likely to face off against whoever wins the center-right primary; Fillon or Juppé. That's where the problems for her opponents start.

Fillon is a rare beast in French politics; what the British would call a Thatcherite, he wants to take on the trade unions (still remarkably powerful in France compared to those in other Western countries like the U.K. or U.S.) and dramatically deregulate France's heavily controlled labor market, with his policies including scrapping the 35-hour weekly working limit and cutting public sector jobs to fund private sector tax breaks.

That may have endeared him to conservative voters in the primaries. But it might not be so appealing to the white working class voters Le Pen wants to sway, or to the left-wingers whose support Fillon will also need to get over 50 percent of the final round vote to become president. Bear in mind that even Socialist President Francois Hollande's comparably moderate labor market reforms met with a surge of protest and anger from unions and students earlier in 2016.

It should be said, though, that at this stage polls still suggest Fillon would beat Le Pen.

Putin, meanwhile, is a more distant danger for French voters but a pressing one for Europe's political elites. Emboldened by the Brexit vote in Britain and Donald Trump's rise in America, Putin has spooked the politicians in the continent's West; his ever-increasing confidence intervening in the Syrian conflict and attempts to extend his reach further into Eastern Europe, have led to a toughening of anti-Russian rhetoric.

Le Pen, whose appeal is in part based on a rhetoric of "strong leadership," is unabashedly Putin-sympathetic. That's par for the course for Europe's populist right. More surprising is Fillon's Putin-friendly positioning.

According to L'Express, the Russian president called Fillon, then prime minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy, the day after his government's electoral defeat to Hollande in 2012. More recently, Fillon has called for a coalition with Putin to fight the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). A Fillon-Le Pen run-off, then, would mean a pro-Kremlin candidate in the Elysee Palace whatever happens.

France's election is likely to be fought on less lofty themes; the issues of French identity and religious integration that dominated the conservative primary will loom large. On these, Fillon treads a path between the liberal Juppé and Sarkozy, whose attempt to get re-elected as president on a hard-right ticket ended in defeat on Sunday.

If he has what it takes to beat Le Pen, Fillon will have the gratitude of French progressives and foreign leaders alike. Until then, he's an unknown quantity in a time of uncertainty, and Europe will be watching France with baited breath.