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Two polls published Monday showed that former conservative prime minister Alain Juppé, who is seen as a “safe pair of hands”, remains comfortably in the lead, even if Sarkozy, his main opponent (in a field of seven candidates), appears to be catching up.
A Harris Interactive poll gave Juppé 39 percent support in the first round of the primary (down one point), while a Kontar Sofres poll showed a six-point drop from 43 percent to 36 percent in a month.
Sarkozy is trailing behind Juppé, with 31 percent support according to Harris, and 30 percent according to Kontar Sofres (a two-point gain).
Given the unreliability of opinion polls that failed to predict the outcomes of two huge political upsets of 2016 – the US presidential election and June’s Brexit vote – and the fact that the primaries are open to all French voters for the first time, Sarkozy believes he has everything to play for.
And he has been playing it in a decidedly Trumpian style.
When the result of the US election was confirmed last week, Sarkozy (who had supported Hillary Clinton in the US election) hailed Trump’s victory as “a beautiful day”.
He immediately echoed the US president-elect’s populist rhetoric, saying he represented a “silent majority” of French voters who had been ignored by the “elites” (a group he nevertheless belonged to as president between 2007 and 2012).
“There is an anger among the people,” he said in a television interview the following day. “They are living in a reality that is no longer recognised by many politicians. Someone who asks the question about immigration is not a populist.”
Appealing to the far right
Sarkozy’s presidency, however, was marked by populist measures designed to appeal to far right voters, such as pushing legislation to ban the Islamic veil in public places, clamping down on trade unions and toughening rules on immigration and naturalisation
In recent campaign speeches, Sarkozy has vowed to ban the Islamic burkini swimsuit, said he will not accept special school lunches for Muslim pupils (“if pork is on the menu, they should get themselves a double portion of chips instead”) and said that all migrants getting citizenship should see the ancient Gauls as their ancestors.
And Sarkozy shares many of Trump’s policies, including stronger borders, clamping down on immigration and also a tendency to be overtly provocative – a trait he believes is the surest way to win loyalty of his supporters.
The spectre of the National Front
The result of the primaries will be crucial in setting the ground for the April 2017 presidential election.
Poll after poll has predicted that far-right National Front leader Marine le Pen could finish top in the first round.
The anti-EU and anti-immigration politician told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday that she was confident of taking the second round, a victory that would be a third act (after Brexit and Trump) of a “global revolution”.
However, the polls (as unreliable as they may be) predict a re-run of 2002, in which her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, got to the second round only to see the majority of French voters, of all political persuasions, push conservative candidate Jacques Chirac to victory with 82 per cent of the vote.
Sarkozy believes he is the candidate that can achieve a similar victory over the National Front leader, and he believes Trump-style populism will deliver him a similarly overwhelming mandate.
“Sarkozy is going to plumb the depths, he will attack the intelligentsia and skewed opinion polls,” former editor of right-wing French daily le Figaro Yves Thréard told Europe 1 radio. “He is convinced that Trump’s victory has opened the gates for a more free expression of public anger, and he may just get away with it. The American election may have completely thrown the primaries.”
Alain Juppé, a pro-EU conservative whose vision of France is as a country that celebrates its diversity, said that as president he would eliminate France’s tax on the super-rich, end the cherished 35-hour working week, raise the retirement age and possibly reduce unemployment benefits.
But he has consistently said he would not entertain “dishonest” populism, and in an October debate of the seven candidates in Sunday’s vote, accused Sarkozy of “panicking” as he sought to win far-right voters from Le Pen.
“I do not want France to go down the road of extremism,” he said last week. “I do not want the future to be in the hands of either the National Front or those who would borrow their ideas.”