More than a year before the French presidential election, it looks likely that the New Big Thing in politics across the Channel will be a consensual, septuagenarian veteran of the centre-right establishment.
The former Prime Minister and foreign minister, Alain Juppé, 70, is running away with the first-ever open primary of the centre right in France. Cautious, stiff and a tiny bit dull, he might be described as an antidote to Donald Trump.
Mr Juppé is a quiet, highly intelligent man but a poor public speaker. He promises to reform France without confrontation – just as François Hollande promised to do in 2012. Attempts by Mr Hollande and his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, to deliver a long-delayed reform of French labour law were met by a second day of opposition on the streets. Although the proposals to reduce the rigidity of hiring and firing rules have been weakened in recent days, students and sixth-formers turned out in their tens of thousands across France to reject the reform.
In an opinion poll published as the students prepared their demonstration, Mr Juppé increased his lead over the former President Nicolas Sarkozy to 18 points. If the two-candidate, second-round run-off in the November primary were to be held today, he would squash Mr Sarkozy by 64 to 36 per cent, according to the Elabe poll for BFM TV.
Politics hates certainty, a sure thing. Many things might happen in the next eight months. For one thing, Mr Sarkozy, 61, hopes to reinvent himself as a Trump Lite, running not as a failed ex-President but as the champion of popular anger against a stumbling establishment. In an interview, Mr Sarkozy mocked Mr Juppé as the representative of a “supposed intelligentsia... a pretentious sect... who believe that they are at the heart of things”. Au contraire, Mr Sarkozy said: the future of France belonged to someone with a “simple connection” to real people – himself.
Mr Sarkozy’s closest aides have been predicting for weeks that the Trump campaign, diluted for Gallic tastes, will provide a template for the former President’s triumphant return to the Elysée Palace. But, leaving aside the oddity of an unpopular former leader running as a populist outsider, Mr Sarkozy’s hopes face a possibly fatal blow next week.
France’s highest appeal court, the Cour de Cassation, will rule next Tuesday whether or not the ex-President should stand trial for influence-peddling and corruption. If the ruling goes against him, Mr Sarkozy could appear in court just before the November primary, accused of trying to bribe a senior judge in the same Cour de Cassation for information and influence in another case against him.
The primary is the first organised on the centre right in France. There are a dozen declared candidates, but only Mr Juppé (41 per cent) and Mr Sarkozy (23 per cent) are attracting significant support.
Mr Hollande is more unpopular than any head of state in recent French history. He – or any other candidate of the centre left – will struggle to reach the two-candidate second round in the Presidential election proper next April and May. The leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, seems certain to reach the second round, but opinions polls suggest she cannot get the 50 per cent of voters that she needs to reach the Elysée Palace. By a process of elimination, the anointed candidate of the centre right is likely to become next President of the Republic.
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