Les Républicains candidate likely to pose threat to Macron’s re-election

Ciotti and Pécresse battle for dominance after party’s shock first-round primary result

By Saturday afternoon, French president Emmanuel Macron will know exactly who he is up against in his campaign for re-election.

The only outstanding question was who would represent the mainstream, neo-Gaullist conservative party, Les Républicains (LR).

The results of the first round in the LR primary, divulged on Thursday, were a shock. Éric Ciotti (56), the deputy in the National Assembly for the Alpes-Maritimes department, led the poll, with 25.59 per cent of the vote.

Ciotti is a party hack who has never served as a cabinet minister and is virtually a clone of the independent extreme right-wing candidate Éric Zemmour.

Zemmour has twice been convicted for racist hate speech and is awaiting the verdict in a third trial on the same charge. He hastened to congratulate Ciotti with a tweet: “Happy, dear Éric, to see our ideas so widely shared by LR militants.” Ciotti has said that if Zemmour reaches the presidential run-off against Macron next April 24th, he will vote for Zemmour.

Ciotti was followed closely by the president of the Paris region, Valérie Pécresse (54), with 25 per cent of the vote. Pécresse served in the past as minister for research and higher education, and as budget minister, and was the only one of five LR candidates to distance herself from Zemmour.

Within hours, three defeated candidates asked their supporters to vote for Pécresse in Saturday’s run-off, making her the favourite to win the LR nomination. If successful, she will be the first woman to represent the mainstream right in a presidential election.

The losing candidates were Michel Barnier, the former EU commissioner and Brexit negotiator, who won 23.92 per cent of the vote, president of the northern France region Xavier Bertrand (22.36 per cent) and Philippe Juvin (3.13 per cent), a medical doctor who became a media personality during the pandemic.

Political commentators were stunned that neither Bertrand, who consistently led in opinion polls since last spring, nor Barnier, who was the darling of top party officials, made it to the run-off. That Bertrand finished fourth seemed further proof of the unreliability of opinion polls.

Ciotti and Pécresse had less than three days to campaign between the first round and the run-off. The period was kept deliberately short, LR party spokesman Gilles Platret said, to avoid "blood on the walls".

Pécresse is thought to have benefited from a recruitment drive which saw tens of thousands of new members join LR so they could vote in the primary. If she wins the nomination on Saturday, she will have an uphill battle to close the gap with other Macron challengers.

Pécresse has until now scored between 10 and 12 per cent in opinion polls. She would have to surpass two extreme right-wing candidates – Zemmour and Marine Le Pen – who are polling at around 16 and 20 per cent respectively.

Zemmour’s emergence as a potential candidate over the summer had been the biggest surprise of the campaign. But he lost momentum in recent days, when he was widely condemned for brandishing a middle finger at a woman heckler. He delivered a grotesque imitation of Gen Charles de Gaulle in the video announcing his candidacy, which used archive footage without legal permission. He will hold his first big rally on Sunday night.

Ciotti or Pécresse could pose a serious threat to Macron’s re-election. The far-right candidates Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, Le Pen and Zemmour already total a combined score of 43.5 per cent in polls. Ciotti believes he can unite LR and the far right to defeat Macron. Pécresse, on the other hand, could win over more centrist, disillusioned Macron voters, and would doubtless benefit from being a woman. She boasted in August that she was “two-thirds Merkel and one-third Thatcher”.

‘Infernal triangle’

Zemmour tugged the LR primary towards the extreme right, by obsessing over what Libération newspaper calls the right’s “infernal triangle”: immigration, Islam and security. In France, primaries are usually won at the extreme fringes of parties, while candidates shift towards the centre in the presidential poll. Despite her more centrist credentials, Pécresse too pandered to the far right, for example, proposing more severe punishment for offences committed in the immigrant banlieues than in the rest of France.

Ciotti outdid her, demanding the construction of a “French-style Guantanamo” for suspected Islamists and terrorists. He wants to abolish the right to citizenship for the children of immigrants who are born in France and subscribes to the far-right belief in a “great replacement” of the French population by Muslim immigrants.

The award-winning journalist Marion Van Renterghem, who co-authored a book with Pécresse, describes the LR presidential hopeful by saying: "There is something of the 'best girl' about her. She is very serious, a scholarly intellect but lacking in charisma. She is never temperamental, and she has worked with the same team for a very long time."

Yet like Macron, Van Renterghem adds, Pécresse is less conventional than she appears. “Her family is a little nutty. Her mother is from Corsica and her grandfather was a renowned psychiatrist who revolutionised treatment for depression. She speaks Japanese and Russian, which she studied in Communist camps in the former Soviet Union.”

If Pécresse wins the nomination, she is expected to bring LR back towards the French political centre. If Ciotti should triumph, France’s mainstream right will have realigned itself with extreme right-wing populists, and Macron will have achieved his goal of destroying a once great party.