France’s conservative Les Républicains choose their presidential nominee in an internal party vote December 1-4, hoping to avoid the squabbles and scandals that scuppered their Élysée Palace run five years ago. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the five candidates battling to represent a diminished conservative party that finds itself squeezed between President Emmanuel Macron and his challengers on the far right.
The spectre of 2017
When France’s conservatives last picked a presidential candidate in the autumn of 2016, the party primary was described as a dress rehearsal for the following year’s Élysée Palace race. With the ruling Socialists in the doldrums, whoever emerged victorious on the right was seen as a shoe-in for the presidency. But nothing went according to plan.
One by one, the party’s champions – Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé, François Fillon – fell by the wayside, victim to scandal, intrigue and a yearning for change. Crippled by a “fake job” fracas involving his wife Penelope, Fillon was eventually knocked out in the first round, falling behind centrist upstart Macron and the far right’s Marine Le Pen. Incredibly, Les Républicains had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Down, but not out
Five years on, France’s main conservative party is a diminished force, squeezed between an increasingly right-leaning President Macron and a new dark horse on the far right: the as-yet-undeclared agitator Eric Zemmour, who has eaten into Le Pen’s base and is luring many conservatives too. But with left-wing parties still in disarray, Les Républicains remain the only mainstream force Macron is still wary of – and their choice of presidential nominee will be closely watched at the Élysée.
Mindful of the bitter wrangling that wrecked the party’s bid in 2017, the conservatives have opted for an internal vote by party members this time instead of open primaries, and have urged the five contenders to refrain from mudslinging. This has resulted in polite and somewhat sedate debates in which the would-be nominees often struggled for disagreements. With Macron’s economic policies increasingly encroaching on conservative terrain, all five contenders have doubled down on security and immigration instead – with some pushing deep into far-right territory.
Having quit Les Républicains amid the anti-establishment wave that upended French politics in 2017, Xavier Bertrand repeatedly stated he would go it alone and take no part in primaries this year. But when the party failed to rally behind him, the head of the northern Hauts-de-France region was forced to eat his hat, renew his membership, and submit to a vote after all. A former health and labour minister, the 56-year-old boasts the best polling numbers among the five candidates. Consecutive wins in his battleground region, a key target of Le Pen’s National Rally party, have allowed him to portray himself as a rampart against the far right.
Like his rivals, Bertrand has struck a pro-business line, promising tax breaks for industry, massive investment in infrastructure projects, an end to the 35-hour work week and an increase in the legal retirement age (up to 64, from the current 62). A champion of nuclear power, he wants to build 10 new reactors and halt the construction of wind turbines, which he routinely bashes as “eyesores” that wreck France’s landscape. He also plans to introduce a minimum 50-year prison sentence for terrorism-related crimes and allow prosecutors to rule in lieu of judges for lesser offences to speed up the judicial process.
Another recent returnee, Valérie Pécresse has also been forced to eat humble pie, returning to the fold after she quit Les Républicains and created her own movement in 2019. Like Bertrand, she was recently buoyed by a comfortable re-election as head of the Paris region, a territory previously governed by the left and now coveted by Macron’s party. Pécresse, 54, served as government spokesperson, as well as budget and higher education minister, under former president Sarkozy. Seen as a moderate conservative, she has recently toughened her discourse on immigration – in line with the rest of the party.
The only woman in the race, Pécresse has put family support at the heart of her platform, promising to increase benefits for households with two or more children and boost tax relief for homecare jobs. She plans to increase wages by slashing tax and pension contributions while extending work hours and hiking the legal retirement age to 65. She also wants to cut 150,000 civil servant jobs. Other proposals include a carbon tax for imports from outside the EU, boosting both nuclear power and wind turbines (in the latter case, with the public’s consent), and the expulsion of foreign nationals suspected of radical Islamist activities.
The dark horse: Monsieur Brexit
Anglophones accustomed to hearing about the EU’s suave, articulate and always polite former chief Brexit negotiator might be surprised to hear that Michel Barnier is seldom seen by his French compatriots as a frontrunner in the race for the Élysée. With his multiple ministerial portfolios, two stints as EU commissioner, and extensive knowledge of both the French and European parliaments, the 70-year-old Savoyard has more experience – and certainly more international recognition – than his four contenders put together. But his mild manner and continental postings have long kept him out of the French melee. Still, his steadfast loyalty to the party could help him spring a surprise when members cast their ballots.
Those who have followed the Brexit saga will be equally surprised to hear Barnier stick to a distinctly Eurosceptic line since he declared his presidential candidacy. Having negotiated the terms of Britain’s gruelling EU divorce, the veteran diplomat says he understands the people’s exasperation with a European bureaucracy seen as both remote and encroaching. Striking a Gaullist tone, Barnier has promised to restore the French state’s sovereign powers in matters of immigration, curbing entries and calling a referendum to shield France from the interference of EU courts. Like his rivals, he plans to cut taxes, increase working hours and push back the retirement age. Unlike them, however, he plans to raise wages for health and education workers exhausted by the pandemic while also doubling the number of judges to ease the pressure on an overworked judiciary.
While all five candidates have struck a hard line on immigration, no one has pushed further than Eric Ciotti, a party stalwart and lawmaker from the Alpes Maritimes area around Nice, whose policies straddle the increasingly blurred line between right and far right. Having already refused to back Macron against Le Pen in the 2017 run-off, the 56-year-old has openly said he would rather vote for Zemmour – an apologist for the Nazi-allied Vichy regime – than the incumbent president. He also espouses the far right’s widely debunked “Great Replacement” theory, according to which elites are plotting to replace French nationals of white stock with immigrants.
Ciotti plans to axe 250,000 civil servant jobs, end progressive taxation, and have people work 39 hours per week while earning a 38-hour wage. He also plans to pull France out of the visa-free Schengen Area and replace citizenship by birth with citizenship by bloodline. Other policies include tougher sentencing for those who target police, a 40,000-person increase in prison capacity and the establishment of a “French Guantanamo” to detain people flagged by law enforcement as potential threats to national security.
The other outsider, 57-year-old Philippe Juvin, is the least-known candidate vying for the conservative nomination. A doctor and head of the emergency room at the George Pompidou hospital in Paris, he first made a name for himself during the Covid-19 crisis, making frequent appearances on French television. A long-time mayor of La Garenne-Colombes, northwest of the capital, he presents himself as the “candidate of public services” in a field where all others plan to slash public sector jobs.
Juvin’s proposals include the establishment of a municipal police force in all towns with a population of 10,000 or more; boosting the number of medical students to help areas suffering from a shortage of doctors; and reaching 50 percent renewable energy by 2050, notably through the construction of offshore wind farms. But his economic policies, featuring tax breaks and longer work hours, bring him closer in line with his rivals. So does his stance on immigration, which includes a suspension of the Schengen accords and France’s withdrawal from EU jurisdiction with the introduction of national limits on immigration.