With the US presidential election and its shocking result now complete, attention starts to turn to the next big election, in France, which will choose its president for the next five years in a little under six months time.
France votes in a two-round system, with the two leading candidates from the first round contesting a runoff two weeks later (23 April and 7 May). Of the dozen or so candidates likely to participate in the first round, it’s expected that only three will be serious contenders: one from the centre-left Socialist Party, one from the centre-right Republicans (formerly the UMP), and one from the far-right National Front.
We know who the National Front candidate will be: Marine Le Pen, the party’s media-friendly leader. (The far-right doesn’t go in much for things like internal democracy.) But centre-right and centre-left candidates are both to be determined by open primaries. The centre-right are going first, with the first round of voting tonight and a runoff a week later; the Socialists will vote in late January.
The Republican primary is also the more important one, since its candidate is virtually certain to be one of the top two next April. That’s much less certain for the Socialists; incumbent president François Hollande is deeply unpopular, and he faces a strong challenge from the left of his party in the shape of Arnaud Montebourg, former industry and economy minister, who left the government in 2014 due to disagreement over economic policy.
Hollande is yet to announce whether he will contest the Socialist primary; if he sees it as a lost cause it’s possible he will instead back his prime minister, Manuel Valls, who represents the party’s liberal or social democratic wing. Complicating matters further is the potential centrist candidacy of former minister Emmanuel Macron, who replaced Montebourg in 2014 and resigned last August for the opposite reason, arguing the government had failed to follow through on its promises to liberalise the economy.
The Republican primary by contrast is relatively straightforward; the field has been set now for months. There are seven candidates, but only three of them have been polling in double figures: two former prime ministers, Alain Juppé and François Fillon, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy. The key thing tonight, therefore, is not so much who leads but who comes third, leaving the other two to fight it out in the runoff.
Until a week or two ago it seemed clear that Fillon would be the one to miss out, but he has gained dramatically in the late opinion polls. One poll this week has him up ten points to 22%; still behind Juppé (36%) and Sarkozy (29%), but with enough momentum running his way to give him a real chance.
The Republicans are divided by an intertwined set of policy, tactical and personal issues. Sarkozy has staked out a position on the right of the field, campaigning for law and order and against immigration and multiculturalism. Juppé is the leading moderate, having supported liberal immigration policies and opposed such measures as the “burkini” ban on French beaches. Fillon sits somewhere in between, being generally on the party’s liberal side but conservative on some social issues.
Tactical questions, however, can be more divisive than policy ones – or rather, what seem to be tactical questions can expose deep ideological divisions. Sarkozy has consistently tried to draw the sting of the National Front by shifting his party to the right and avoiding positions that would antagonise the far-right’s voters. He accordingly tends to present the Socialists and the National Front as morally equivalent. Juppé, by contrast, advocates resistance to the far right and has mused about joining with some of the Socialists in a government of national unity.
Then there is the personal factor: Sarkozy is, to say the least, a controversial figure. Although he clearly inspires fierce loyalty among some sections of the party, most of those who have had to work with him seem not to have relished the experience – including Fillon, who was once his loyal lieutenant but fell out with him dramatically. He is also enmeshed in a number of legal investigations, although it has to be said that he’s not the only French politician to be beset by scandal.
Polls have consistently shown Juppé beating Sarkozy in the second round; not coincidentally, they also show him to be much the stronger contender against either Hollande or Le Pen. Chances are that the centre-right’s voters will go for electability and decide that the former president doesn’t deserve another chance.
In a turbulent world, that would be a welcome voice for moderation.
Early results are expected by around 8.30pm Paris time, or 6.30 Monday morning in eastern Australia.