- French conservatives voted in the first round of the Republicans’ presidential primary on Sunday.
- Out of seven candidates, former prime ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé got the most support. They will face off in a second voting round next week.
- Of the two, Juppé is the more mainstream and pro-European candidate.
- Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president, placed third and was eliminated.
- Given the unpopularity of the ruling Socialist Party, whoever prevails in the right’s primary is likely to become president in 2017.
This is the first time the French right has organized an open primary. The Socialists held their first one in 2011 and will organize a second in January.
All registered French voters can participate in the Republican primary so long as they pay a €2 fee and sign a declaration that they support the party’s values.
Entryism, whereby non-Republicans infiltrate the contest to influence the outcome, is expected — but could balance each other out if center-left voters turn out for Juppé and hard-right voters, whose sympathies lie with the Front national, back Sarkozy.
There was little doubt about the outcome until a few weeks ago, when — as I reported here the other day — Fillon began to surge. He is now polling neck-and-neck with Juppé and Sarkozy.
Much will depend on turnout.
High turnout would suggest Juppé managed to draw moderate, perhaps even left-wing voters to the polls who want to make sure he goes up against the far right’s Marine Le Pen in the presidential election next year.
Low turnout would be better for Sarkozy. His more right-wing policies on identity and immigration appeal to party activists.
One of the issues separating the top contenders is how the European Union should evolve in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the bloc.
Sarkozy has said Brexit is a wakeup call for the rest of Europe. He wants sweeping treaty changes to take power away from the European Commission and create a joint Franco-German presidency of the eurozone.
Juppé agrees that Europe needs to take a step back. But he also argues now is the time to reinvigorate the European Union with new purpose. “For France, Europe doesn’t make sense if it isn’t a political project,” he argues.
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Another major foreign-policy issue that divides the top three contenders is Russia.
BuzzFeed reports how Sarkozy has transformed himself from a Vladimir Putin critic into a Vladimir Putin apologist since he lost the presidency in 2012.
Fillon has struck a conciliatory tone as well. He told the magazine Valeurs actuelles this week it was “fortunate” Russia had intervened in the Syrian conflict, otherwise the self-proclaimed Islamic State might have reached Damascus by now.
In reality, Russia’s objective in Syria is to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It has not prioritized fighting the Islamic State, which mostly does battle with Western-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.
Juppé is the only major candidate who has spoken out against what he calls an “acute Russophilia” on the French right.
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Aside from ideological and policy preferences, many conservative voters will take into account the other parties’ candidates as they nominate one of their own for president.
Right now, it looks like whoever wins the Republican primary will face the far right’s Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election next year.
But that assumes neither the Socialist Party candidate nor a centrist like Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister, will qualify for the runoff.
That will probably be true if François Hollande seeks a second term. He is France’s least popular leader since De Gaulle.
But if Hollande steps aside, his successor could be Manuel Valls, the no-nonsense reformer who has been his prime minister since 2014. If Valls runs, he could potentially steal votes from a center-right candidate like Fillon or Juppé.
If neither Hollande nor Valls runs and the Socialists nominate a nobody, like Benoît Hamon, or a far-left firebrand, like Arnaud Montebourg, Macron, running on his own ticket, could emerge as the only serious center-left choice. His economic policy wouldn’t be too different from Fillon’s or Juppé’s. Faced with those three options, moderate voters may prefer Macron as a breath of fresh air.
On the other hand, in a three-way contest for the support of middle France, Macron could appear untested, as I argued here earlier in the week.
Patrick Chamorel, a senior resident scholar at Stanford University in Washington DC, writes for The American Interest that the same economic reform proposals made by this year’s presidential candidates have been at the heart of every center-right platform for decades. Few have been implemented due to a lack of conviction, effort and courage in facing hostile labor unions, he argues.
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 way to strengthen the case for reform is to seek an explicit mandate for it.
Sarkozy has suggested organizing referendums, that favorite tool of populists everywhere.
Both he and Juppé have pledged not to seek a second term if they are elected, which would presumably make it easier for them to get reforms done that a majority of the French support in principle but which always turn out to be more controversial when the moment is there.
Turnout is projected to top three million, which would be a record. In the Socialist primary five years ago, 2.6 million people took part.
People are still waiting in line to vote, although the polls closed at 7 PM. There are no exit polls. The first results are expected to come in around 8:30. Given the high turnout, we may not learn which two candidates quality for the second round until midnight Paris time.
François Fillon is in the lead with 42.8 percent support. That is based on 686,781 votes counted so far at 2912 out of 10,228 polling stations.
Alain Juppé is in second place with 26 percent support. Nicolas Sarkozy is at 24.4 percent.
Presumably the polling stations that managed to get their results in early are in small towns and the countryside. Juppé’s numbers are likely to creep up as soon as results start coming in from metropolitan areas.
1.6 million votes have been counted and Fillon is still in the lead with 43.6 percent support. Juppé is at 26.7 percent and Sarkozy at 22.9.
If these numbers keep up, I’m not sure how Juppé prevails in the second round next week. He’s not going to inherit all of Sarkozy’s voters.
Most second-round opinion polls assumed a Juppé-Sarkozy runoff. The few surveys that tested a Fillon-Juppé contest put the latter in the lead — but those surveys are from April and May, when Fillon was still way down in all the polls.
Juppé is putting more distance between himself and Sarkozy. The former is now at 27.8 percent support against 21.7 percent for the former president.
With 7365 polling stations reporting, and some 2.6 million votes counted, Fillon remains ahead of the pack with 43.7 percent of the votes.
Sarkozy has accepted defeat and thrown his support behind Fillon.
“The page has, I hope, turned definitively on fratricidal war on the right,” he said.
Sarkozy returned to frontline politics in September 2014, when an election for the party presidency had deeply divided conservatives. Jean-François Copé, Sarkozy’s favorite, and Fillon, the two candidates at the time, accused one another of fraud. The latter even temporarily withdrew his supporters from the party in parliament.
Sarkozy eventually took over the party’s leadership and rebranded it as Les Républicains. He moved it further to the right on identity issues, calling for stricter nationalization requirements and the banning Islamic headscarfs and halal meals from universities and high schools.
The strategy was a familiar one for Sarkozy. He similarly tacked to the right in the runoff of the 2007 presidential election and got into the Elysée Palace on the back of Front national supporters.
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Fillon has thanked his supporters and said the high turnout demonstrates the French people wish to be involved in the future of their country.
“I am carried by those who want to straighten out France and retain a language of truth,” he said. “We must break with these five years of failure.”
Juppé, in his statement, vowed to press on. “I believe that, more than ever, the people of France need to come together to turn the page on a disastrous five-year plan that has brought down our country and in order to block the Front National,” he said.
The Financial Times reports that Fillon’s plans — scrapping the limit on weekly working hours, extending the retirement age, slashing benefits and cutting civil service jobs to fund €40 billion in tax breaks for companies — could trigger massive strikes and protests. “But he stands ready to take on the unions.”
“At some point, unions have to feel there’s determination and strong will,” Fillon told the British newspaper. “There might be a showdown but the government must prepare for it.”
As the Financial Times notes, Fillon’s conversion to liberalism has come late. He voted against marriage equality and has been associated with the French statist tradition for decades. In ministerial jobs under Jacques Chirac, he built a reputation as a compromise-seeker when dealing with trade unions.
Fillon told the Financial Times he determined to drop the soft approach after fully grasping the fragility of France’s finances.
“My program is not ideological,” he said. It would reduce public spending from 57 to 49 percent of gross domestic product. “It remains socialist.”
It is also a tall order in a country that cherishes the many comforts and securities that make the French welfare state so expensive.
With 3.7 million votes counted, Fillon remains in the lead with 44.1 percent support. Juppé is at 28.4 percent and Sarkozy at 20.7.
9138 out of 10,229 polling stations have now declared their results. I don’t expect the figures will change dramatically at the last minute, so I’m closing the blog.
Thank you for reading the Atlantic Sentinel and good night!