Juppe and Sarkozy: A scenario written in advance

The conservative party militants and sympathizers did not follow expectations and France woke up on Monday with a surprising outcome

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For months, the same discourse was heard over and over again: the French republican primary election was supposed to be a long awaited match between Alain Juppe and Nicolas Sarkozy, a scenario written in advance for which both candidates had been sharpening their arguments. Each represented one of the main streams of the Republican Party: the moderate conservatism embodied by Alain Juppe would face the populistic liberalism of Sarkozy.

Yet the conservative party militants and sympathizers did not follow expectations and France woke up on Monday with a surprising outcome. Francois Fillon, the stern Prime Minister who served under Nicolas Sarkozy during his entire presidency crushed the competition and pushed his former boss into political retirement. Sarkozy, who had already staged a definitive departure from political life after his defeat against Hollande in 2012, is unlikely to survive the colossal blow handed by his very own party. With just a little above 20 percent of the votes by his name, the message for Sarkozy was clear: the French population prefers an uncharismatic rigorous man in the shadows over a former president obsessed by cameras and populistic promises.

Popular success of the primary election

The conservative primary election Sunday was a considerable popular success. Four million people waited - some for several hours - to vote for the man most likely to become the next French president, as the xenophobic National Front struggles to gather beyond its electorate and the majority socialist party trails far behind in the polls. Although Sarkozy and Juppe regularly accused each other of poaching other parties’ electorate, exit polls tend to show that most voters were faithful Republican affiliates, disappointed by both Sarkozy’s plagiarism of the National Front’s political platform, and Juppe’s winks towards the center left. Fillon instead remained remarkably constant in his defense of conservative values and market oriented economic ideas.

Several lessons can be learned from this result. First, as in many recent elections around the world, this vote has sanctioned an incumbent. As the global economic growth slowed down, populations are even more eagerly asking for new faces either from outside of the traditional establishment or from younger generation. In the case of France, this could serve as a warning for President Francois Hollande who remains hesitant about whether to be a candidate for reelection despite his abysmal approval ratings. What happened to Nicolas Sarkozy - an unequivocal defeat served by his former supporters - is a likely fate for Hollande if he joins the upcoming socialist primary.

Second lessons from this ballot: elections are harder to predict and polling institutes need to revise their methodology. The projections provided for next year’s presidential election should also be reassessed especially if Francois Fillon is the final Republican candidate. The scenario of the Republican candidate facing Marine Le Pen in the second round of the 2017 presidential election because of a very week socialist party, presented as an ineluctable result, should be itself revisited. Francois Fillon’s societal positions are very conservative and traditional which could help him syphon Marine Le Pen’s electorate.

Catholic champion

Francois Fillon was also the champion on the Catholic lobby who gathered significant crowds against same-sex marriage in France. He holds very reactionary positions on immigration and on French history, qualifying recently the French colonial past as little more than “a sharing of cultures that France should not be ashamed of”. The fact that he is likely to represent the Republican party is very bad news for Le Pen as she would have favored more moderates inter opponents.

Arithmetic leaves little chance for Alain Juppe to win the second round against Francois Fillon, after the front runner received both 45 percent of the votes as well as the support of the third and fifth candidates (Nicolas Sarkozy and Bruno Le Maire). Juppe needs to make up a lot of ground with the mere 27 percent he received. He has one week to shatter the aura of modernism that Fillon ironically enjoys despite defending traditional positions on key social debates such as abortion rights and immigration.

The final debate on Thursday will also be a key moment to criticize each other’s views on the French economy as both Juppe and Fillon support quite different economic platforms. Fillon is the heir of a monetarist perspective, previously defended by Margaret Thatcher, with deregulation and pro-market reforms implemented often brutally. Juppe is much more consensual as he defends the idea of concertation with Unions and more importantly a developmental state approach incompatible with Fillon’s policies privileging private companies.

Another key difference which might be exploited by Alain Juppe is the lack of foreign policy experience from his opponent and in particular his position towards Russia. While Juppe openly criticized Russia for the strikes on Aleppo, Fillon turned his eyes away and now favors a reworked alliance with Russia, along the lines of Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy. Fillon’s victory was actually welcome by several voices in the Kremlin. In any case, Juppe now needs to set the agenda during the last week of the campaign and enlighten voters as to some of Fillon’s conservative comments if he wants to have the chance to win. This selection process is not totally over and Juppe might still edge it if he mobilizes the strong crowd that initially supported him.