Paris, France, Sep 21 – France’s presidential race started in earnest Wednesday as seven rightwing candidates including ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy were confirmed to contest a November primary, with the nominee seen as the likely winner of next year’s election.
The stakes are high with polls showing that the winner of a duel between the two leading candidates from the Republicans party, Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppe, would be the clear favourite to prevail in May.
Following the confirmation of the candidates by election officials, two rounds of voting will be held on November 20 and 27 to select a rightwing nominee.
National identity and Islam have emerged as key themes in their contest, which has echoes of US Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House.
Sarkozy is a brash rightwinger and a divisive figure in French politics, while the experienced Juppe, the current mayor of Bordeaux, has styled himself as a unifying force.
“The candidates all agree on the economy,” said Thomas Guenole, a political scientist and author of a book on Sarkozy’s comeback, referring to their consensus on cutting taxes and relaxing France’s 35-hour working week.
“The only issues on which they create divisions are the four Is: Islam, identity, immigration, insecurity,” he said.
Sarkozy, visiting the northern migrant flashpoint of Calais on Wednesday, called for beefed-up controls on all of France’s borders so that the country is not “flooded” with migrants.
President Francois Hollande is yet to confirm if he will stand for re-election as the Socialist party’s candidate in a run that would defy his historically low approval ratings.
On the far right, the National Front is prepared for battle, with its leader Marine Le Pen widely forecast to successfully negotiate the first round of national voting in April and then lose in the second round against a mainstream candidate.
– Juppe the favourite –
Juppe, 71, France’s most popular politician, has been the favourite to emerge victorious from the start, but Sarkozy has nearly closed the gap with hardline proposals designed to woo voters reeling from a string of jihadist attacks.
The 61-year-old Sarkozy, who led France from 2007 to 2012, has vowed a “merciless” fight against the Islamist extremists who have killed 238 people nationwide since January 2015.
Declaring French identity to be under attack, he has declared war on the Islamic burkini swimsuit, the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in universities and other practices he sees as “un-French”.
“If you want to become French, you speak French, you live like the French. We will no longer settle for integration that does not work, we will require assimilation,” he told a rally on Monday.
– ‘Fuel on the fire’ –
Juppe, a moderate who served two years as premier under president Jacques Chirac and also was foreign minister under Sarkozy, has taken the opposite approach.
Accusing Sarkozy of “pouring fuel on the fire” with his calls for a state ban on the burkini, Juppe has tried to sell voters on what he sees as a “happy”, secure French identity.
Vowing to knit together a fractured nation, he has promised to “reach out” to the vast majority of Muslims who adhere to France’s secular values.
Juppe has undergone a radical makeover from the grey technocrat who spent years in the political wilderness over a fake jobs scandal at Paris City Hall in the 1990s to benign elder statesman.
He has repeatedly made overtures to centrists as well as leftists, who can vote in the primary if they pay two euros and sign a charter declaring they adhere to centrist or conservative values.
– ‘War chief vs wise man’ –
For Jerome Fourquet of pollsters Ifop, the choice between “a war chief and someone who is wiser, more reassuring and brings people together” will come down to whether the French believe the country is, as Sarkozy says, “at war”.
A Harris Interactive poll last week predicted a tie between the two in the first round of the primary, with Juppe going on to win the run-off a week later by 52 percent to Sarkozy’s 48 percent.
Among their other rivals are Sarkozy’s former premier Francois Fillon, his former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who made a failed bid for Paris mayor.
For Fourquet “the ideological centre of gravity of the right is closer to Nicolas Sarkozy’s positions than those of Alain Juppe.”
But Sarkozy is also hobbled by his legacy, seen as underwhelming economically, and is disliked by a majority of French people.