The French presidential race began in earnest today, with almost three years to go before election day.
The centre-right former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, 69, announced that he will be a candidate in his party’s primary elections in the spring of 2016, 12 months ahead of the 2017 election proper.
His decision to make an early declaration was aimed not so much at the struggling Socialist president, François Hollande, as at the former centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy. Political commentators said that Mr Juppé was trying to cut the ground from beneath the feet of his colleague and former boss, who has been hesitating for months about a possible return to politics.
Mr Juppé is seen by many moderates on the right and centre of French politics as the best bulwark in 2017 against the high-flying leader of the far right Front National, Marine Le Pen – and against the return of Mr Sarkozy.
Despite his many legal problems, Mr Sarkozy is considering running this autumn for the vacant presidency of the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) a party racked by allegations of financial wrong-doing. If Mr Sarkozy wins the party presidency – as he might – he believes that he should become the de facto presidential candidate for 2017. Plans for a US-style open primary in 2016 should, therefore, be abandoned.
The officially “retired” Mr Sarkozy, 59, remains hugely popular with UMP members and might easily reclaim the party presidency. He is less popular in the electorate at large and would struggle to win a nationwide primary campaign.
By throwing his hat into the ring for a primary that does not yet exist, Mr Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux and a former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, is attempting to outwit the former President.
In a blog on his website, Mr Juppé presented himself as the best man to heal divisions on the centre and right of French politics and to check the rise of the Front National. A recent opinion survey suggested that Ms Le Pen might top the poll in the first round of the presidential election in May 2017, leaving President Hollande and a centre-right candidate to struggle for the second spot in the two-candidate second round.
In his blog, Mr Juppé said that the quarrelsome French centre-right must unite behind a strong candidate in three years’ time. “If we are divided, the outcome of the first round will be uncertain and the consequences for the second round unpredictable,” he wrote.
Mr Juppé is a rare example of someone who rose from a modest background to reach the highest levels of French public life. He was for many years the right-hand man to former President Jacques Chirac who once described him as “the best amongst us”.
In 2004 Mr Juppé was convicted for the illegal use of public money. He was given a suspended jail sentence and a brief ban from politics, which prevented him from emerging as a possible rival to Mr Sarkozy before the 2007 presidential campaign.
Although a poor public speaker and a moderate TV performer, Mr Juppé’s intelligence and moderation are widely admired. His main obstacle to a successful run will be his age.