French right-wing primaries up for grabs as Fillon surges in polls



The outcome of Sunday’s primary to choose a conservative presidential candidate looked increasingly uncertain Wednesday, after polls showed former prime minister François Fillon’s ratings shoot up from third place in what had been a two-man race.

Just last week, polls had 71-year-old former prime minister Alain Juppé heading for a comfortable win in Sunday’s first round of primaries for the conservative Les Républicains party and its centre-right allies. Coming in second was former president Nicolas Sarkozy, under whom Fillon served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012.

Sarkozy has sought to mobilise the populist end of the right-wing spectrum, hoping for a “Trump effect” upset in the primaries to deliver him victory and the chance of a second mandate. But, if the polls are to be trusted, his strategy appears to be faltering.

The results of an OpinionWay survey published Tuesday November 15 showed Fillon, who had been languishing in a distant third place, taking 25 percent of voting intentions, putting him neck and neck with his former boss Sarkozy.

Second round voting, in the expected case that no candidate takes 50 percent on Sunday, will take place on Sunday November 27.

Fillon’s ratings more than double in a month

While 25 percent may seem small, and in the context of the international polling industry’s recent high-profile failures (Brexit and the US presidential election), Fillon’s new poll ranking is nevertheless significant as it has more than doubled since mid-October, and is five points higher than another poll published Monday.

His last-minute rise has been mirrored in reverse by Juppé, who has lost seven points in the same period, and now has around 33 percent of voting intentions in Sunday’s first round. Similarly, Sarkozy’s rating has dropped from 31 percent to 25 percent since the end of October.

Importantly for Fillon, the same poll has him beating Juppé, if they go face to face in the second round, by 54 percent to 46 percent. Fillon is even further ahead of Sarkozy, with 63 percent of second-round voting intentions, against his rival’s 37 percent.

For the first time, the vote is open to all French citizens. And while Sarkozy is favourite among members of his Les Républicains party, the many centrist and left-wing voters who are expected to take part are overwhelmingly against a comeback by the abrasive former president.

Fillon in bullish mood

“I believe I will go through to the second round, and after that, the second round is there for the taking,” a confident Fillon said in an interview with RTL radio on Wednesday.

“Nicolas Sarkozy will only take this country backwards,” he said. “It has always been extremely difficult in this country for a former president to get back into office after having been beaten.”

“On the other hand, there is Juppé, whose campaign has been overwhelmingly prudent, and who hasn’t proposed the kind of reform programme this country needs.”

Fillon, who has a less extreme programme on security and immigration than Sarkozy, is promising Thatcherite free-market policies. He wants to cut up to 600,000 public sector jobs and plans to scrap France’s 35-hour week.

He has had a more successful run in TV debates than Juppé, who is seen by many non-party members as merely the “least worst” candidate if it comes to a choice between him and Sarkozy.

“You may be surprised but I am not,” Fillon told RTL about his poll boost. “I have been saying for months that the polls don’t make much sense and that the primaries would start at the point where the candidates start taking to the French people.”

A bigger challenge looms

If the polls are to be relied on, the winner of the November 27 second round will be up against far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election.

Poll after poll has predicted Le Pen winning the first round, only to be beaten by the mainstream conservative candidate in the second.

The winner of November’s primaries is therefore the favourite to become French president next year, given the weakness of the ruling Socialists and the record unpopularity of current president François Hollande, who has yet to declare whether he will run for a second term in office.

The closest a leading Socialist has come to launching a bid is Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who was Hollande’s economy minister until August 2016, who announced his candidacy on Wednesday.

Although Macron is among France’s most popular politicians, the 38-year-old, who will stand as an independent, does not hold elected office and has no party apparatus behind him.

And while he has yet to set out his policies in any detail, he is widely seen as the candidate most likely to take votes from conservative Juppé in a presidential election.

For Fillon, Macron’s announcement on Wednesday was the final nail in the coffin of Hollande’s presidency.

“This is an important date, remember it,” Fillon said. “Not only is Hollande failing on all fronts, but he has also lost the one man [Macron] who was closest to him and was the architect of his economic programme. Hollande’s authority is finished.

“I firmly believe that the French will not trust their national destiny to someone with no experience of elected office and has said nothing about his plan to run the country,” he said of Macron.