Nicolas Sarkozy went into the centre-right Republican party’s first ever presidential primary as favourite. A past president, a fiery orator, and the closest – in language and in his focus on “identity” – to the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, he was widely seen as the one most likely to compete with her on her own terms in the election proper, and win.
That is not how it turned out. Sarkozy came third in Sunday’s first round and the field is now left to Alain Juppé, former prime minister and mayor of Bordeaux, and another former prime minister, François Fillon, who came up on the outside, to top the poll. It is Fillon who now has the momentum behind him and looks set to prevail in the run-off next week.
This potentially changes the whole complexion of the French presidential contest. In choosing Fillon, if they do, primary voters – who turned out on Sunday in their droves – will be opting for unflashy solidity: he is one of relatively few politicians to make a success of the job of prime minister, which carries more responsibility than power in France’s presidential system. But they will also be leaning towards an election fought as much on the economy as on Le Pen’s home turf of security, immigration and “Frenchness”.
Fillon came across in the primary campaign as a latter-day “Thatcherite” – calling for cuts in the public sector, and more flexibility in the labour market. Abroad, he suggested – controversially – that he would favour a less hawkish policy towards Russia. But the question is how far, as the centre-right’s presidential candidate, he would really be able to set the agenda against Le Pen – who, it is assumed, would be the other candidate in the presidential run-off next May.
Both the Brexit vote in the UK and the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the US, suggest an anti-establishment and populist trend in the western world that would seem to work in Le Pen’s favour, and against someone like Fillon. France could, though, turn out to be different.
The introduction of a primary contest was intended, in part, to give the centre-right a candidate with the popular appeal to take on Le Pen. But what is striking not just about this primary, but about those mooted for the Socialist party’s nomination – the hugely unpopular incumbent, François Hollande, or perhaps his “ex”, Ségolène Royal – is the utter dearth of new faces in French politics.
The original line-up for the presidency next year – Sarkozy, Juppé, Fillon, Hollande, Royal, Le Pen – is more or less the same as for every presidential election since the mid-1990s, except that Le Pen’s father has handed the reins, not entirely willingly, to his daughter – and all bar Le Pen are in their 60s or older. Into this mix, though, has recently come Emmanuel Macron, one-time economy minister in Hollande’s government, who has announced that he will run as an independent. He is a persuasive speaker, and just 38.
Independents, and even third-party hopefuls, such as the veteran François Bayrou, do not have a good track record at the top of French politics. But could next year be an exception? The Socialist party looks a hopeless bet, but the same trends that produced Brexit and Trump have also fuelled Jeremy Corbyn’s grassroots popularity in the UK, and could perhaps boost a candidate from somewhere on the left who campaigned as an outsider.
The assumption that Le Pen will reach the presidential run-off may also be questioned. The National Front is not a novelty in France the way populist parties and candidates currently are elsewhere; it is a known quantity, with a well-defined – and perhaps limited – constituency. When Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly reached the run-off in 2002, the response was a massive landslide for Jacques Chirac, as politicians and people came together to crush him.
Marine Le Pen may have softened the party’s hard edges, but how far has she managed to make herself “presidentiable”? Does Sarkozy’s elimination give her a less contested run, or will it expose the unpalatable aspects of her policies more starkly? The six months before the presidential election look set to be a very long time – not just in French, but in international politics, too.
Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster.