Voters dump Barnier and Bertrand in French conservative party primary

Eric Ciotti, the most rightwing of the would-be French presidential candidates for Les Républicains, and Valérie Pécresse, president of the Ile-de-France region around Paris, will vie for the conservative party’s nomination after winning the first round of the primary vote.

Pécresse, competing to become the first woman president of France, is now the favourite to secure the party’s nomination in the second round of voting at the weekend, having won pledges of support from the three losing candidates.

Although the vote was close, LR members made a surprise choice in voting out two of the five candidates considered to be the favourites — Michel Barnier, the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, and Xavier Bertrand, the combative leader of the Hauts-de-France region. Bertrand was rated in recent national opinion polls as having the best chance of beating the incumbent Emmanuel Macron in next April’s presidential election.

LR leader Christian Jacob said on Thursday that Ciotti had secured 25.6 per cent of the votes cast, just ahead of Pécresse with 25 per cent, Barnier with 23.9 per cent, Bertrand with 22.4 per cent and Philippe Juvin with only 3.1 per cent.

Pécresse, 54, was minister of higher education and for the budget in Nicolas Sarkozy’s government. She is seen as moderate within the LR and presents herself as an environmentalist and a feminist as well as a fiscal conservative.

Valérie Pécresse

© Yoan Valat/EPA-EFE

Running on a traditional rightwing law and order platform, Pécresse has pitched her campaign for the presidency as unabashedly rightwing, in contrast to the “chameleon” president Emmanuel Macron, who aims to woo voters of different leanings.

As head of the Ile-de-France region surrounding Paris, she has pushed through local security measures including reinforcing surveillance on public transport and around schools. In her presidential manifesto she said she wants to beef up the justice system, slash public spending and bring in immigration quotas. “I am truly a woman of order, and a reformist,” Pécresse told Le Point magazine in August, describing herself as “two-thirds [Angela] Merkel, one-third [Margaret] Thatcher”.

An opponent of gay marriage when it was legalised in France in 2013, Pécresse has since said she would not seek to overturn the law. She has been a bigger champion of environmental policies than some of her party rivals, saying she favours wind power.

All the party’s candidates have shifted sharply to the right in recent months, partly in response to the emergence of the anti-immigration polemicist Eric Zemmour as a popular independent candidate.

“The country has never been so much on the right,” Pécresse told the Financial Times earlier this year, arguing that the LR should be able to win power at the national level by building on its presence in local and regional governments across the country. “If the real issue for the right in France today is winning the battle for credibility, we have that in our regions,” she said.

For a time, Zemmour overtook Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, in the polls as the main challenger to Macron. Most candidates on the right and centre of the political spectrum have competed with each other to call for tougher immigration controls and declare their attachment to law and order.

Ciotti, a 56-year-old party veteran and an MP in the Alpes-Maritimes region, confirmed his reputation as the most radical of the five contestants after his victory on Thursday by echoing Zemmour and former US president Donald Trump by declaring that his country was “on the road to demotion and decline”. 

Eric Ciotti

Voters dump Barnier and Bertrand in French conservative party primary
© Berzane Nasser/ABACA via Reuters

Ciotti is by some distance the most rightwing of the five LR candidates on immigration and law and order, and also the most radically liberal on economic policy.

In his determination to restrict immigration, crush Islamist terrorism and enforce the law in 500 areas that he says are out of the control of the state, he proposes withdrawing the automatic right to French citizenship to those born on French soil, the establishment of a “French Guantánamo” prison and sending in the army to lawless suburbs. “The French expect powerful remedies to save our country from decline and even destruction,” Ciotti said in Le Figaro last month. “Never have the French so strongly supported the rightwing values that I espouse: authority, defence of our identity and the promotion of economic liberty.”

His economic policies include replacing the progressive income tax system with a flat tax of 15 per cent, massive cuts to the 5.6m-strong civil service, increasing the official retirement age to 65 from 62 and extending the working week to 39 hours from 35.

Zemmour, who officially launched his own candidacy on Tuesday and has attracted plaudits from LR supporters, congratulated Ciotti on Twitter. “Dear Eric, happy to see our ideas so widely shared by LR members,” he wrote. Le Pen said the vote showed how divided the LR was, even if “the harder line on immigration within the party has won”.

Les Républicains members will choose between Ciotti and Pécresse in a vote that starts on Friday and the winner of the primary will be declared on Saturday.

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris

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