France’s centre-right party to hold presidential primary in December

French presidential election updates

France’s Les Républicains (LR) party has delayed its choice of candidate for next year’s presidential election until December, hoping that the divided movement will be able to designate a champion to take on President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the April vote. 

The decision came after a majority of LR members at the weekend voted in favour of nominating their candidate on December 4 in a primary open only to the party’s 80,000 paid-up members.

“This is good news” because it means the right “can stand together behind a candidate of unity”, party leader Christian Jacob said.

With seven months until the election, centre-right voters still have their loyalties split between several possible challengers for the presidency.

Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region in the north, is ahead of his centre-right rivals in opinion polls after launching his campaign early. However the former health minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy is no longer an LR member and had earlier refused to submit to an “open primary” in which centrists and other LR allies would have been able to vote alongside party members.

The other leading centre-right candidates are Valérie Pécresse, who leads the Ile-de-France region around Paris, and Michel Barnier, a veteran politician who was the EU’s Brexit negotiator.

For the French presidential election next year, however, polls suggest that Macron and Le Pen would be the ones to make it to a second and final round of voting.

“They (the LR) know that if they have several candidates, they won’t get past the first round,” said Christèle Lagier, assistant politics professor at Avignon university. 

But finding an acceptable method for choosing a candidate has proved hard for the LR. The party was still “traumatised” by the last election in 2017, when François Fillon, former prime minister, won the party primary but failed to qualify for the second round of the presidential election after the exposure of a scandal over payments to his wife for fictitious parliamentary work. 

Another difficulty is that Bertrand and Pécresse have quit LR because they seek to appeal to a broader audience — and in Bertrand’s case so that he does not have to abide by the conclusions of a primary. Such a stance underlines the fragility of a centre-right movement whose support has been sapped by Macron and more recently by the anti-immigrant polemicist Eric Zemmour.

While Pécresse and Barnier have promised publicly to abide by the results of the party vote in December, Bertrand has yet to do so and is seeking to persuade his rivals to stand down and back him as the candidate with the best chance of winning the presidency.

The LR would in turn need to convince Bertrand to stand down if he loses the primary. “If Barnier makes it or Pécresse makes it [by winning the primary], will Bertrand still stand? . . . I think it’s less clear than ever,” said Vincent Martigny, politics professor at Nice university.

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