A primary would help Les Républicains choose a presidential candidate, but it could be divisive
A few months ago on this blog, I explored the issues dividing France’s left in the run-up to the country’s presidential election in May.
But whilst unity remains to be found amongst French greens, socialists, communists and radicals, it’s now the nation’s right that appears divided.
Firstly, the right needs to find a candidate with decisive support. It’s currently looks like the tale of two regional presidents.
Xavier Bertrand, leader of the northern Hauts-de-France region, is almost neck-and-neck with Valérie Pécresse, president of the central French Île-de-France region.
An opinion poll released on Friday 3 September noted that 28 percent of French people are thought to have a “positive image” of Mrs Pécresse, whilst Mr Bertrand leads with 31 percent.
But other candidates include the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, who has an approval rating of 21 precent, the law-and-order-oriented MP Éric Ciotti, who comes in at 12 percent, and the former MEP Philippe Juvin, whose popularity sits at around nine percent.
This clash of ideas should be expected pre-election, as multiple candidates test the waters.
But the tension may come to a head when Les Républicains, France’s largest right-wing party, holds a crucial political convention on Saturday 25 September.
If no candidate has achieved a conclusive lead by then, or if no cross-candidate consensus has been found, a primary could take place.
The idea of a primary intensely divides the French right. Some see it as an opportunity to resolve differences, whilst others believe it’ll lead to fractures.
Mr Bertrand, currently considered the most popular candidate, appears to have strongly ruled out taking part in a primary. He said recently that it was “not his business” and that “in no case” would he take part.
Christian Jacob, LR leader in the Assemblée nationale, France’s lower house, has said that party members alone will decide on whether a primary goes ahead.
However, judging by Mr Jacob’s comments last week to Le Figaro, he’s urging that unity be found: “We have several candidates: Michel Barnier, Éric Ciotti, Philippe Juvin, and also Valérie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand. They are aware that division will bring defeat, and that they must be able to unify to win. Everyone will have to face up to their responsibilities.”
Mr Jacob commissioned an opinion poll a few days ago, which will quiz a sample of the French right on their preferred candidate and favoured selection methods. Mr Jacob hopes it will “shed light upon” the decisions to be made by LR and its supporters. Perhaps, however, he hopes it will give one candidate a decisive lead.
Mrs Pécresse, on the hand, is said to favour a primary. She said several days ago that “because it’s my nature, I’ll always play the collective”.
The regional president also told radio station Europe 1 recently that: “To determine [who the best candidate is], what could be a better way than a vote? It allows for a candidate to be selected based on their plans, and for them to be asked questions and to see if their plans gain ground.”
Mr Juvin, Mr Ciotti and the Senate leader Gérard Larcher have also spoken in favour of a primary, which could allow differences to be settled fairly.
“When there is a plurality of candidacies, I know only one method, and that’s to decide among these candidates”, Mr Larcher said recently.
A primary could certainly allow currently less popular candidates like Mr Juvin and Mr Ciotti to pick up a few more votes.
It could also help the party decide between the current favourites Mrs Pécresse and Mr Bertrand.
Yet a primary could fragilise a grouping whose support has declined in recent years.
Whilst a centre-right candidate reached the final run-offs of the 2012, 2007, 2002, 1995 and 1988 elections, LR was eclipsed by the rise of centrist president Emmanuel Macron in 2017, whose movement La République en Marche gained support amongst traditional centre-right voters.
Adopting a decisive party line could thus be crucial if the French right hopes to appeal to the voters it once attracted but who have been wooed by Mr Macron, and if it wants to win enough votes to make it to the election’s second round.
It could also help it win back the voters who would rather see Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement national (RN) assume office over Mr Macron.
If the French right fails to eat away at the RN candidate, Ms Le Pen could once again be Mr Macron’s final-round opponent.
Furthermore, problems could arise if a primary goes ahead but Mr Bertrand maintains his candidacy.
If LR were to field two different candidates, support for the French right would be split between two sides and make it impossible for the party to take second place in the first round of the election.
More broadly, a primary could have one major pro and one major con for LR. A decisive candidate could emerge, but the divisions may be pronounced.
From a strategic point of view, however, the losing candidates would have to rally behind the winner to stand a chance at throwing a Macron-Le Pen duel into question.
And that would just reinforce one key truth about French politics: it’s often about finding consensus.
Michel Barnier (Foto-AG Gymnasium Melle, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons); Valérie Pécresse (Jacques Paquier, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons); Xavier Bertrand (Fondapol – Fondation pour l’innovation politique, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons); Éric Ciotti (Frantogian, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons); Philippe Juvin (Andy Mabbett, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons).