A hard-right French MP who wants to hold a referendum “to stop mass immigration” and set up “a French Guantánamo bay” to deal with terrorism, has topped the first-round vote to choose a presidential candidate for the right’s Les Républicains party, in a shock result.
Éric Ciotti, 56, a politician from Nice who is known for his hardline views on Islam and immigration, went from outsider to the surprise top position in Thursday’s first-round vote by members of Nicolas Sarkozy’s party. He now faces a second-round runoff against Valérie Pécresse, the former Sarkozy minister who wants to become France’s first female president.
During the primary campaign, Ciotti had dominated TV debates by nodding to many of the ideas of the French far right and vowing to fight against the “taboos of political correctness”.
He said his success was down to his straight-talking approach and “the popular momentum for France to remain French” – an echo of the anti-immigration rhetoric by the far-right leader Marine Le Pen and the far-right TV pundit Éric Zemmour who has launched his own outsider bid for president.
Pécresse, 54, head of the Paris region, has defined herself as “two-thirds Angela Merkel and one-third Margaret Thatcher”, which she says means being tough and economy-focused while building consensus. Well-known for facing down long-running street protests and university barricades in order to push through Sarkozy’s higher eduction reforms, Pécresse has argued that she is the only one with the standing and experience to beat the centrist Emmanuel Macron.
A former budget minister, Pécresse has traditionally been seen as a moderate, and pro-European, although she hardened her line on immigration and security along with all the other candidates during the primary race. She has said her first measure as president would be to increase salaries and end the 35-hour working week.
Pécresse said on Thursday that she had the support of French people who wanted “respect, truth and action”. She said she would make a “clear break” with Emmanuel Macron’s presidency which had “damaged and divided France”.
The vote brought disappointment for the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, who was knocked out after commentators criticised his performance in the TV debates as lacklustre. Xavier Bertrand, a former health minister and head of the northern Hauts de France region, was also eliminated. Both said they would now support Pécresse, whose team believe she has a strong chance of winning.
The first-round results were close. Ciotti and Pécresse both received slightly over 28,000 votes each, with Ciotti gaining 25.59% and Pécresse 25% of the ballots cast by party members.
Roughly 140,000 members of the Les Républicains party, which traces its roots back to French war hero Charles de Gaulle, were called to cast their ballots electronically. The final round vote will begin on Friday morning, with the result announced on Saturday afternoon.
After the result, Ciotti argued he was the only figure who could unite the right and win back voters from the far right. He has set himself apart from the centre right of the party, which has seen key figures jump ship to Macron’s government.
Ciotti has said he would never align with Macron or vote Macron, even to stop the far right. He was keen not to alienate supporters of Zemmour, who argues that France is being destroyed by immigration and who holds convictions for inciting racial hatred as well as being attacked by historians for claiming the Nazi collaborator Marshal Philippe Pétain saved French Jews rather than aiding their deportation to death camps.
Ciotti has said that given a choice between Macron or Zemmour, he would vote Zemmour. He said on Thursday that Zemmour had a “lucid analysis” of the state of France. But Ciotti added that he himself would bring more “hope of renewal” for France. He said his model was Sarkozy’s successful 2007 campaign, when many voters deserted the far right to vote Sarkozy.
Zemmour tweeted: “I’m happy, dear Éric, to see our ideas so widely shared by members of Les Républicains.”