France’s contested middle ground

The other day we had an advance look at next month’s German election, but there was also news last week on the French presidential election to be held six months later, in two rounds on 10 and 24 April next year. Incumbent Emanuel Macron has not officially confirmed that he will be a candidate, but no-one doubts that he will seek re-election.

Assuming Macron reaches the second round, his most likely opponent will again be the far right’s Marine Le Pen, whom he beat by a two-to-one margin in 2017. The big question is whether centre-left or centre-right can challenge one of those two for a place in the runoff – and if so, who the candidate will be that might do it.

Last time around, both the centre-right Republicans and the centre-left Socialists selected their candidate in an open primary. It didn’t end well for either of them; the Socialist candidate, left-winger Benoît Hamon (who has since left the party), ran a poor fifth in the election, while the Republicans’ François Fillon had his campaign derailed by a corruption scandal that ultimately saw him sentenced to two years in prison (he remains free on appeal).

So the Socialists this time are going with an internal vote, limited to their 50,000 or so members rather than the two million who voted last time. The unbackable favorite to win it is the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. But the opinion polls for next April still put her only in single digits: behind the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and fighting out fifth place with the likely Greens candidate, Yannick Jadot.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are still vacillating over exactly how to choose their candidate. The recognised front-runner, Xavier Bertrand, has persistently ruled out submitting himself to a primary. If he can’t be brought round, the party organisation may have to choose between giving in to him or calling his bluff and running the risk of having rival centre-right candidates on the ballot.

Last week, former party secretary Laurent Wauquiez, previously regarded as one of Bertrand’s main rivals, ruled himself out of the running, saying that his “moment had not come” and he did “not want to add division to division.” At the age of 46 he evidently feels that there will be a better time for him in the future. But he also made a pointed dig at candidates who want to run “without agreeing to a common rule,” a clear reference to Bertrand.

The following day, another contender declared his hand: Michel Barnier, recently of some fame as the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, announced that he would be a candidate for the nomination. He joins a line-up that already includes fellow-centrist Valérie Pécresse, premier of the Île-de-France region, and two lesser-known conservatives, Éric Ciotti and Philippe Juvin.

It’s unclear how much difference the identity of the candidate will make. Polls consistently show Bertrand as the best performer among them; Barnier is perhaps too much the technocrat to be able to differentiate himself effectively from Macron, while Pécresse would present the novelty of the centre-right’s first female candidate. Last week she contrasted herself with her rivals by saying that Bertrand had the polls, Wauquiez had the party and she had the ideas.

But the Republicans’ big problem is the difficulty of getting into the runoff. Although the Socialists look badly placed, there is at least a substantial left vote up for grabs: as I pointed out back in June, if Mélenchon, Hidalgo and Jadot could somehow agree to pool their vote, they would be well into the mid-20s, on a par with Macron and Le Pen. The centre-right has no such option; its vote is stuck in the teens, and to improve it has to take votes from one of the front-runners.

So the Republicans have to hope that either Macron or Le Pen will stumble badly – which with seven months to go is certainly a possibility. And if it does happen, they would at least be well placed to beat the survivor in the second round. Whereas even if the centre-left were somehow to come out ahead of Macron or Le Pen, a second-round victory would be a chancy business.

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