French elections kick off a year after Paris massacre

This coming Sunday will define the contours of the next presidential election in France

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This coming Sunday will define the contours of the next presidential election in France as the main opposition party - the right wing Republicans - stage the first round of its primary ballot to choose its representative. As the current President, Francois Hollande, and his left wing socialist party are setting new records of unpopularity because of disappointing economic results, analysts and polling institutes have long forecasted that the Republican candidate will eventually dispute the Presidency to Marine Le Pen and her extreme right National Front party.

Since Marine Le Pen is struggling to gather forces beyond her own movement and break the 30 percent glass ceiling, the candidate chosen Sunday by the Republican Party will become the frontrunner and likely French President next year. This explains the popularity of this primary ballot as a record number of citizens are expected to cast their vote on Sunday.

Ahead of the last televised debate on Thursday, three experienced politicians seem to have broken away from the rest of the field of candidates. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has thrown all his energy into the battle, hoping to escape the series of judicial investigations that have plagued his campaign. His strategy is clear: poaching the National Front electorate by hammering slogans against immigration and radical Islamism. As a result, he has won the sobriquet “Mini-Trump” from his rivals who mock the lack of depth of his arguments and his populism.

Despite a late push, Sarkozy still significantly trails behind former Prime Minister Alain Juppe who constantly positioned himself as a steady convener, stern but moderate, able to gather forces from the liberals to the traditional conservative militants of a party created by the General de Gaulle. In front of a hyperactive and aggressive Sarkozy whose personality divides and hurts part of the electorate, Juppe developed a very risk averse campaign, careful to continue setting the agenda without losing any of his supporters.

The cautious strategy explained a rather boring campaign from the veteran of candidates who ran the French government under Jacques Chirac already more than 20 years ago. As a result, a third name has started to emerge: Francois Fillon, Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister. Fillon made the most of the last debates to remind viewers that he was the one carrying reforms while Sarkozy postured in front of cameras and tried to compete with Sarkozy and Juppe on the depth of their respective experience.

This actually constitutes one of the weaknesses of the Republican Party as all three front runners were already members of governments in the 1990s. The last minute inclusion of Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet as a candidate fell short of breaking with an image of a party of old white men that fails to attract militants of diverse origins and younger generations.

The capacity of the Republicans to provide a vision for the future can be thus challenged, especially when the country needs to move forward after the tragic events which occurred in Paris exactly a year ago. The interest in these primary elections can be explained more by a desire to prevent the rise to power of a divisive and xenophobic Marine Le Pen – and to a lesser extent the return of Nicolas Sarkozy – than by a frank adhesion to the right wing movement.

The country is still ailing from the wave of terrorist attacks that have both shattered its self-confidence and its economy. The French population feels orphan of a strong leader and in need of protection which explains the sympathy towards Alain Juppe. Last week end’s commemorations of the Bataclan massacre – which claimed the lives of 130 civilians in the street of Paris – confirmed that emotions are still running high.

Nevertheless despite the grief, these events also shown that the French population is eager to renew with the whimsicality, passion and love for arts that define the country and that terrorist tried to mute. If this open-mindedness and rejection of populism should continue to prevent Marine Le Pen from wining the next elections, it is hard to conceive that the young French population will easily rally behind any of the Republican candidates.

There is therefore undeniably a road towards victory for another movement from the center left of the French political exchequer especially as President Hollande seem to possibly shy away from a run for reelection. The socialist party has been harshly judged for economic difficulties worsened by the terrorist attacks but younger candidates such as Manuel Valls or Emmanuel Macron could represent an alternative. Similarly, more radical parties such as the green party and the former communist party have both chosen their champions.

Yet this upcoming division from already moribund left wing parties will only facilitate the victory of the chosen Republican candidate. If Nicolas Sarkozy is able to rally citizens from the extreme right, he stands a chance. Most likely, Alain Juppe will benefit from a choice by default from voters beyond the limits of the party itself eager to prevent a Sarkozy comeback. The winner will have the upper hand in the upcoming presidential campaign but if he is incapable of generating a more sustainable momentum and support then Marine Le Pen will step in the Presidential Palace next year.

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