For those whose thoughts immediately turned to France after the election of Donald Trump, the significance of tomorrow’s Republican primary is that its winner may well face Marine Le Pen in the final showdown of the country’s presidential contest.
Trump’s success has raised awareness of the possibility of a copycat victory for Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National. Indeed, she and her supporters — not least her father Jean-Marie — have capitalised on Trump’s campaign and result, pointing up connections with his entourage, and what they see as similarities between the voters he won and those they seek.
The next French President will be elected in May, as the result of a run-off between the two contenders who prove most popular in a first round to be held in April. There are many declared and prospective candidates, and the country’s two main parties — the centre-left Socialist Party (PS), and the centre-right Republicans (formerly known as UMP) — are each using an open primary to choose their representative.
Whoever who wins the Socialist primary — which won’t take place until January, something that could well be a disadvantage in itself — is seen to be much less likely to make it to the final stage of the contest, than their Republican counterpart. This is largely owing to division and the significant unpopularity of the current President, PS’s Francois Hollande, whether or not he is chosen (and wishes) to be the party’s 2017 presidential candidate. If Hollande — who is often caricatured in France as slow and unassertive — were to be selected, it is assumed that he would seriously struggle to make it to the last two. But if the selectorate took note of that, and a resultant popular movement drove the selection of a non-establishment candidate, the race could potentially be shaken up.
This week, however, saw the highly-anticipated announcement that Emmanuel Macron had officially entered the presidential contest. Macron, who is Hollande’s former deputy secretary general of the Elysee, (and, like Newt Gingrich, is famous for having married his one-time school teacher) has set up En Marche! — a new centrist party. A la the Lib Dems, this could, to a perhaps small but theoretically decisive amount, affect both major parties. And while the Republicans may be threatened by the appeal of Macron to the liberal faction among their voter base, the Socialists are already stalled by fragmentation.
Therefore, while Le Pen’s critics are increasingly keen to prevent speculative sensationalism from improving her chances, if we consider that she is likely to make it to the final two, it remains probable that she would face a Republican opponent. And that opponent could be chosen tomorrow — if a contender were to win 50 per cent of the vote. If not, there will be a deciding round next Sunday.
Three frontrunners have become apparent in the Republican primary race. A clear head start was gained by Alain Juppé — the current Mayor of Bordeaux, a former Prime Minister, an ‘abuse of public funds’ convict, and a political centrist, who is liked and trusted even among the left-wing for his old-fashioned values. But recent polls have shown Nicolas Sarkozy (President between 2007-12, currently under investigation for corruption, a hard-liner on immigration, and a newly self-claimed Trumpian populist) and François Fillon (another former Prime Minister, and a free-market pro-Russia centrist, who is known for his involvement in party infighting) catching up.
While standard opinion still suggests that Le Pen would most likely be beaten in next May’s showdown if she were to make it that far, recent events have, of course, thrown doubts upon the assertions of pollsters and analysts. Those fearing she could become France’s first female President will be watching tomorrow’s Republican primary closely, in the hope her future conqueror emerges.