Analysis

French Republicans Do Macron A Favor

Party members eliminate the two best candidates against the president.

Emmanuel Macron Angela Merkel
French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel enter the Elysée Palace in Paris, November 12, 2019 (Elysée)

French Republicans have thrown away their two best chances of denying Emmanuel Macron a second term.

Party members eliminated Michel Barnier and Xavier Bertrand from the center-right’s presidential primary on Thursday, giving the men 24 and 22 percent support, respectively.

The more right-wing Éric Ciotti and Valérie Pécresse qualified for the runoff on Saturday with 25 percent support each.

Neither polls well against the president.

Besting Macron

Bertrand, the conservative governor of Hauts-de-France, is the only candidate who has bested Macron in any survey.

Barnier, the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, and Pécresse, the president of the Paris region, would each get around 40 percent support from French voters against close to 60 percent for Macron.

Few polls have pitted Ciotti against the incumbent, since he is a long shot.

Respectable

A respectable version of France’s answer to Donald Trump, Éric Zemmour, Ciotti has called for canceling birthright citizenship and sending the army into crime-ridden banlieues. He represents the wealthy neighborhoods of Nice in the National Assembly.

International media describe Pécresse as “moderate”, which compared to Ciotti she is. A successful minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, Pécresse has in recent years reinvented herself as an environmentalist and a feminist. She says she no longer opposes gay marriage. She still supports shrinking the French state, reducing unemployment benefits and toughening security, including by expanding surveillance on public transport (as she did in Île-de-France) and lifting restrictions on facial recognition software.

This doesn’t distinguish her too much from Macron, who abolished the wealth tax, made it easier for companies to hire and fire workers, and tightened laws against online hate speech.

No advantages

Barnier might have been able to appeal to some urban liberals without losing small-town conservatives. (At least I think so; this wasn’t borne out by polling yet.) Bertrand could have won over enough blue-collar voters from Marine Le Pen to push her into third place and qualify for the crucial second voting round in April. (This did show up in polls.)

Ciotti and Pécresse don’t have such advantages.

Ciotti would lurch too far to the right. Even if he gains voters from Le Pen or Zemmour (I doubt it), he would push the few remaining liberal Republicans to Macron. Think of him as a French Ted Cruz: too weak for Trumpists, toxic to everyone else.

Pécresse is too governmental for Le Pen and Zemmour populists, but she wouldn’t persuade liberals to abandon Macron either. Think of her as a Nikki Haley: competent, good on paper, nobody’s first choice.

It means the election next year is still Macron’s to lose.

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