As the election of Donald Trump ended America’s long electoral season, the process of choosing France’s next President is just starting with the joint primaries of the “Les Républicains” (LR) neo-Gaullist party and two small allied centrist parties on November 20, followed by a runoff between the top two candidates on November 27. What makes these first-ever open primaries of the Center-Right (the Socialist Party has held them since 2011 and will do so again in January) so important is that the winner will instantly become the favorite to defeat the candidates of the Left and Far Right leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections this coming spring.
This scenario would be a repeat of the 2002 election, when both center-right President Jacques Chirac and Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, qualified for the run-off after sidelining the Left. This time, however, the candidate of the much-strengthened Front National party is expected to score between 25 and 30 percent of the votes in the first round and possibly 40 percent in the run-off, about twice what was achieved in 2002. The candidate of the Center-Right should score at a comparable level in the first round, but should win decisively in the run-off with the votes of the fiercely anti-FN Left. Despite the tailwinds of Brexit and the Trump election, a victory of Marine Le Pen, while possible, is still a long shot.
The primaries are taking place in a national political context that is far from ordinary, marked primarily by the unprecedented series of terrorist attacks of the past two years and by an uneasy debate about the place of Islam in French society. Furthermore, the French widely believe that the Hollande presidency has failed (his approval rating is at a low of 7 percent) especially with regard to unemployment and a vacillating leadership style. His presidency has also precipitated the implosion of a weakened and divided Left and the rise of the populist Front National (FN).
Paradoxically perhaps, the parties of the Center-Right have not been spared a similar distrust, as their leaders have been occupied with settling internal scores since Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012. Beyond the horse race, the primaries are also an attempt for LR to regain credibility by displaying party unity, as well as the capacity to offer innovative policies in the key areas of the economy, Europe, immigration, integration, crime, and terrorism.
The primaries have attracted much interest due in large part to the personalities of the candidates. They include former President Sarkozy, his former Prime Minister Alain Fillon, former Chirac Prime Minister Alain Juppé, two former Sarkozy cabinet ministers, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Bruno Le Maire, and the former head of the party, Jean-Francois Copé. All but one candidate, MP Jean-Frédéric Poisson (who belongs to the small Christian-Democratic party, which opposed the Socialist-passed law on marriage equality) are heavyweights of French politics who owe their political ascendency to both Chirac and Sarkozy. While all were pillars of Sarkozy’s presidency, they fell out with him as a result of his controversial and failed 2012 re-election campaign.
Thirty-one years after Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Sarkozy was only the second President of the Fifth Republic to fail in his re-election attempt. He is now the first to give it yet another try, despite having announced his retreat from politics in 2012. In 2014, he took advantage of an investigation into party chairman Jean-Francois Copé’s suspected conflict of interest in the financing of the 2012 presidential campaign, to push him out and succeed him. However, Sarkozy’s attempt to impose himself as the “natural” candidate of his party for the 2017 presidential election failed and he reluctantly agreed to a primary. The primary would be “open” to all supporters of the Right and the Center, with the effect of diluting Sarkozy’s electoral base of hard-core LR militants and voters. After being cleared of three out of four judicial investigations (mostly related to party and campaign financing), Sarkozy announced his candidacy last August.
Sarkozy’s main rival is the 71-year-old Juppé, not only Chirac’s former Prime Minister but also Sarkozy’s own former Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs. Juppé has managed one of the greatest political comebacks in modern French politics. As Chirac’s Prime Minister in 1995, his unpopularity reached record levels after his economic reforms sent millions in protest to the streets and paralyzed the economy for two months. In 2004, he was convicted of having employed Paris city staff in his political party (shielding his mentor Jacques Chirac). However, since 1995, Juppé has patiently rebuilt his reputation as a successful Mayor of the city of Bordeaux, which has undergone a genuine renaissance. Thanks to Sarkozy, however, he returned to national politics, becoming a respected and competent Foreign Minister in a cabinet that lacked statesmen of his stature. Subsequently, Juppé’s image as a stiff and arrogant technocrat has given way to one of professionalism and moderation.
Juppé has been consistently leading in the polls, with more than 30 percent of voters supporting him, although Sarkozy and Fillon have closed in with about 25 percent of the vote (the polls are considered unreliable since the nature of the electorate and the turnout are unpredictable). In the run-off, Juppé is more likely to edge out Sarkozy than Fillon. In fact, Juppé’s momentum is largely fueled by widespread anti-Sarkozy sentiment, especially among LR moderates and centrist supporters who view Sarkozy as a polarizing figure. In the run-off, Juppé is expected to capture the bulk of the votes received by the losers of the first round, who share distaste for Sarkozy.
Most recently, François Fillon has shifted the election from a Sarkozy-Juppé duel to a triangular contest that could put Sarkozy’s qualification for the run-off at risk. Fillon fell out with the two Presidents he served, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet, under the latter, he was the only Prime Minister of the Fifth Republic to hold his post throughout the five-year presidential term. Tensions between Sarkozy and Fillon existed all along, however, due largely to Sarkozy’s encroachments on the day-to-day governmental tasks of the Prime Minister. Their relationship took a turn for the worse in 2013, when Sarkozy discreetly sided with Fillon’s rival, Jean-François Copé, in their brutal campaign to head the party. Since then, Fillon has developed a bold program of economic liberalization as well as mildly conservative social proposals inspired by his provincial Catholic roots. For many, he embodies the common sense and resilience of “la France profonde.”
Ten year his junior, Jean-François Copé is a more intense and overtly ambitious politician than Fillon. He combines Sarkozy’s energy and Juppé’s technocratic arrogance. While Copé possesses the brilliance of both, he has the popularity of neither. After being nurtured by Chirac, Copé became a popular majority leader in the National Assembly during Sarkozy’s presidency. Hollande’s election in 2012 prompted him to seek the leadership of his party, a potential springboard to the presidency. Yet this turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory: The ruthless and unethical behavior he displayed in that battle severely damaged his reputation. Copé took a further blow when he was placed under investigation (although ultimately cleared) for colluding with a contractor during Sarkozy’s failed 2012 campaign. His candidacy for the presidency is not only his attempt to change his image, but also to retaliate against Fillon and Sarkozy. Polling well below 5 percent, he is unlikely to achieve either. The only candidate to run to the Right of Sarkozy, Copé is not well-served by his controversial style and personality.
Bruno Le Maire was thought to be the potential spoiler of the primary campaign, but finished as a major disappointment. Like Juppé and Copé he is an alumnus of the elite “Ecole Nationale d’Administration” (ENA), and he advised Juppé and Dominique de Villepin before becoming an MP and then Sarkozy’s Minister of Agriculture. Le Maire’s campaign focused on the need to overhaul French politics. He called upon a new generation of politicians (like himself) to rise and inject more ethics in government. Yet, despite his obvious talent, the somewhat stiff 46 year old was unable to broaden and enrich his message, seldom rising above 10 percent in the polls.
The only woman in the competition, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, is another rising star in French politics who has not met expectations. A graduate of “Ecole Polytechnique”, France’s most prestigious engineering school, she held several cabinet positions under Sarkozy, including that of Environment Minister. NKM as she is called, was also the Center-Right candidate for Mayor of Paris, but ended up losing by a significant margin to the Socialist candidate. She too fell out with Sarkozy during the 2012 campaign, when she was his spokesperson; she thought Sarkozy positioned himself too much on the Right. Shortly after he asked her in 2014 to be his deputy at LR, Sarkozy fired her for being too far left of the party line. The only candidate in the primaries to the left of Alain Juppé, NKM is also hampered by a bourgeois “hip” personal style that is off-putting to traditional Center-Right voters.
What are the main positions of the candidates? All concur in their harsh criticism of the Hollande presidency and pledge a break with Hollande’s policies and leadership style. Their philosophies and concrete proposals tend to converge on economic policy, but differ on immigration, integration, and terrorism. What sets the candidates apart is essentially the different emphasis and levels of priority they assign to policy areas. In foreign policy, they support President-Elect Trump’s goal of eradicating ISIS but are concerned by his isolationist, protectionist, and nationalist tendencies. They call for Europe to strengthen its defense capabilities through the coordination of national efforts. They also want to more vigorously protect Europe’s borders by overhauling the Schengen agreement. Most candidates seek a rapprochement with Russia in the global fight against terrorism and a clarification of relations with the Gulf countries that export radical Islamism, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
To various degrees, all the candidates have pledged to break with the economic policies of the Socialists and to liberalize the economy, although they expect more protection from Europe. Most propose cuts in public spending of about $100 billion over five years; the attrition of between 200,000 (Juppé) and 500,000 (Copé) civil service jobs; an increase of the retirement age from 62 to either 64 or 65 years; a phasing out of free health care to illegal immigrants, and the suppression of the iconic Socialist 35-hour week and wealth tax. Copé and Fillon have embraced the boldest free-market platforms: Both call for a “shock” or “rupture” in economic policy that echoes Sarkozy’s victorious 2007 campaign. By contrast, with the exception of tax cuts, Sarkozy has retreated somewhat from his bold positions of the past. The most moderate economic program is that of Juppé, who has been trying to lure the more centrist, even left-leaning electorate by emphasizing that his reforms are meant to preserve, not undermine, the so-called “French social model” of a vast public sector, a generous welfare state, and high taxes.
Variations of these proposals have been at the heart of Center-Right party platforms for decades, yet few were adopted under Presidents Chirac or Sarkozy, due to a combined lack of conviction, effort, and courage in facing hostile labor unions. Deferring these reforms has the effect of making them ever more necessary and difficult, especially now that economic liberalization is no longer a fashionable idea globally. One continuing challenge for the Right is finding the least politically costly method to pass and implement such reforms. The consensus among the primary candidates is to “Dire tout ce qu’on va faire, afin de faire tout ce qu’on a dit” (“say everything we will do, in order to do everything we said”). Why negotiate with hostile labor unions to achieve reforms that were part of the new President’s platform? Some candidates such as Le Maire and Copé even suggest resorting to presidential decrees to bypass the longer and more tortuous parliamentary route. Others like Sarkozy prefer to hold referendums to lift policy blockages. However, the most likely approach to turning campaign promises into reality might be Juppé and Sarkozy’s unprecedented pledges not to run for re-lection at the end of their first term.
Greater differences among the candidates appear on the issues of immigration, integration, and national identity that have dominated the national debate over the past few years. Sarkozy is the only candidate, however, to have focused his campaign almost exclusively on these issues, which he considers central to peoples’ anxieties. This is consistent with his general strategy to compete head-on with the Front National and Marine Le Pen on this controversial political turf. One of Sarkozy’s key proposals is to phase out the program allowing relatives of French residents to immigrate to France (this concerns about 70,000 people, or roughly a third of legal immigrants entering the country every year). Sarkozy also wants to re-open the debate on jus soli, the French (and American) tradition of granting citizenship to anybody born in its territory. Like all other candidates with the exception of Juppé, Sarkozy favors the traditional but increasingly unrealistic goal of assimilating, not simply integrating, immigrants into French society.
On the other end of the spectrum, NKM and Alain Juppé, under the slogan “happy identity,” are inclined to accept a dose of multiculturalism in order to accommodate Muslim religious demands. On the issues of laicité, law-and-order, and combatting terrorism, Copé has proposed to lock up the 3,000 or so individuals classified as Islamist radicals and potential terrorists, as well as about 700 French citizens expected to come back from Syria. While not reneging on the rule of law, most candidates are ready to go further than the Hollande Administration to adjust the legal and institutional framework to the new reality of terrorism.
What are the candidates’ strategies? As noted, ideologically, Copé and Sarkozy have positioned themselves on the Right, Juppé and NKM on the Left, with the rest (Fillon, Le Maire, and Poisson) somewhere in between. Juppé’s economic policy proposals attract many business executives also drawn to Le Maire, as well as “bobos” who might also be tempted by NKM. Sarkozy and Copé appeal to the militant base of the Right, while Fillon and Poisson appeal to Catholics opposed to gay marriage.
The two candidates on the Right are pursuing a strategy predicated on the (mostly accurate) notion that the French political landscape has shifted to the Right, in large part as a result of the public’s increased focus on law-and-order and identity issues. They believe that the main battle in French politics is being waged between the Center-Right and the Front National. Their goal is to capture Center-Right voters before they shift to the FN, and perhaps to encourage those who have abandoned the Center-Right to return. This was Sarkozy’s strategy in 2007 and 2012; it prevailed the first time but not the second. In addition, what might be a winning strategy in a closed primary is unlikely to work in an open one. As a former President, Sarkozy faces the unique challenge of “Sarkozy fatigue” in his own electorate, as well as deep disappointment that he did not deliver on the promises he made in 2007. Now, his credibility hinges on a simple yet compelling question: “Why did he not do it when he was President?”
A primary victory by Juppé, and to a lesser extent a Fillon, would illustrate the paradox of a moderate candidate being nominated by a political party whose ideological center of gravity has moved to the right. Why? Most voters to the right of the party have moved to the FN, shifting LR’s equilibrium toward the center. Voters are therefore believed to want to test a strategy other than Sarkozy’s losing one in 2012; they have already rejected Sarkozy at least once and are ready for a new style and face in the Elysée Palace.
Juppé’s strategy is at the opposing end of Sarkozy’s. Whereas Sarkozy and Copé are popular among the base of LR, Juppé finds most of his support among the less militant centrists who will be able to vote in these open primaries. High turnout, above three million voters, would work in his favor. Juppé has also courted those on the Left who have been disappointed with Hollande. He has even discreetly encouraged them to vote in the primary election of the Right, which many are expected to do, motivated by the urge to prevent their nemesis Sarkozy from returning to the presidency. In the run-off of the presidential election of May 7, 2017, Juppé will present himself as the bulwark against the FN with greater support from the Left than Chirac in 2002. His ambition is to create a vast center in French politics that excludes the hard Left and the hard Right, as the Fourth Republic (1946–58) did, and as Giscard d’Estaing attempted unsuccessfully in the 1970s.
The upcoming French presidential elections will largely be shaped by the primaries and their outcome. The main challenge for whoever emerges victorious this month will be to part with socialism while defeating the Far Right. If non-French observers only take an interest in the general election, they will miss out on the prologue that will shape the story.