FRENCH ELECTION

French voters poised to offer their verdict on Nicolas Sarkozy’s political comeback

The presidential race in France has become a closely watched battle between populist and establishment forces

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2016, 1:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2016, 1:01am

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and political veteran Alain Juppe are heading into a weekend presidential primary as front runners in a contest that may well determine the next occupant of the Elysee Palace.

The Republican primary’s winner is likely to face National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the two-way presidential run-off next May, given that incumbent Socialist Francois Hollande is the least popular president in half a century. Juppe was a prime minister two decades ago, while Sarkozy is attempting an unprecedented comeback after Hollande defeated him in 2012.

The person who wins the nomination on the right has a very strong chance of becoming France’s next president
Francois Miquet-Marty, Viva Voice

Less than two weeks after Donald Trump won power in the US, the presidential race in France has become a closely watched battle between populist and establishment forces that could presage yet another major political upset. The first primary on Sunday will reduce a crowded field of seven Republican candidates to two, who then will face off a week later. 

“The person who wins the nomination on the right has a very strong chance of becoming France’s next president,” said Francois Miquet-Marty, head of polling company Viva Voice. “Much more is at stake than just the choice of personality. There is a realisation that France needs some sort of shock therapy and it’s about selecting politicians who can implement that.”

Whoever wins office next May will take over a country where growth and employment lag European averages and where terrorists have killed more than 200 people in less than two years, stoking religious tension and triggering introspection about France’s national identity. The next president will also have to grapple with the departure of the UK from the European Union and with Trump as president.

All of the Republican candidates broadly agree on economic policy. Where they have clashed is on what it means to be French in the face of a refugee crisis.

Juppe, 71, has touted the idea of a “happy identity” for the French, while Sarkozy, 61, is all for stopping Muslim women from wearing full-body swimwear because it undermined French values. He’s also calling on immigrants to recognise the Gauls as their ancestors. Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon is somewhere in between.

Dealing with a Trump administration was a theme as the primary candidates held their third televised debate Thursday. While Juppe said Europe needs to prepare for “three shocks: on trade, defence and climate,” Sarkozy called for protecting French industry and agriculture. “We must not be naive,” Sarkozy said.

For months, Juppe has registered in polls as the candidate most favoured by French voters, while Sarkozy has led among voters who identify as Republicans. The former president’s popularity within his own political family may allow him to prevail. As the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory demonstrated, polls have failed repeatedly to correctly measure the intention of voters. Fillon pulled even with Sarkozy in a survey this week.

Race wide open as France ticks down to presidential primaries

About a third of voters currently back Juppe in the first round of the primary, with Fillon and Sarkozy both garnering 25 per cent support, according to a November. 13-15 OpinionWay poll of 828 people. Juppe’s support has slipped, while Fillon has surged and Sarkozy has held stable.

“The difficulty in terms of polling is knowing who will turn up to vote,” Miquet-Marty said. “On top of that the race has become much more open in the past two weeks, with an erosion of support for Juppe and significant momentum for Fillon. There are now three candidates who have a credible chance at being in the second round.”