Centre-right launches French presidential campaign
By Eric Maurice
French conventional wisdom says that the likely next president was among the seven politicians debating on TV on Thursday evening (13 October).
For the first time, the center-right party The Republicans (LR) is organising a primary election to choose its candidate for the presidential elections next year.
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All eyes were on the two favourites, former French president and party leader Nicolas Sarkozy, and Alain Juppe, a former primer minister who was also twice foreign minister.
Sarkozy looked determined but stressed, with his shoulders and arms always moving. He said he wanted to be "the president of the silent majority".
Juppe, as often, looked calm and distant and said that at 71 he was "ready" to be president. He said he wanted to make France "optimistic".
The first polls after the debate said that Juppe had won. But the outcome of the primary election, which will be held on 20 and 27 November, remains uncertain.
The other candidates are Bruno Le Maire, a former Europe and agriculture minister, Jean-Francois Cope, who was party leader after Sarkozy's presidential defeat in 2012, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a former environment minister, and Jean-Frederic Poisson, the largely unknown leader of the tiny Christian-Democratic Party.
Opinion polls put Juppe ahead of Sarkozy in the first round. A poll published last weekend said he could also beat Sarkozy in the second round by 62-38 percent.
The vote will be open to all LR members, which theoretically favours Juppe against the more polarising Sarkozy.
But there has been much talk about left-leaning LR members who could vote against Sarkozy, or right-leaning ones who could rebel against Juppe.
The Republicans' primary is seen as crucial because of the political situation ahead of the presidential vote next year.
All opinion polls indicate that far-right Marine Le Pen would finish first in the first round, but that she would be beaten by her opponent in the second round.
With the ruling Socialist Party in disarray because of internal divisions over its economic and security policies, opinion polls also indicate that the Republicans are best placed to keep Le Pen out of the Elysee presidential palace.
President Francois Hollande, if he runs again, would get less than 15 percent of the votes, polls say.
Thursday's debate gave a first view of what a Republican candidate would stand for.
In a more than 2-hour long debate where candidates avoided directly attacking each other, they showed agreement on economic and social policies and aired differences on security and immigration.
They were broadly in favour of reducing charges on businesses and income tax to create growth and jobs. They were also in favour of making the 35-hour working week more flexible and increasing the retirement age.
Juppe and Sarkozy proposed to reduce spending, mainly by reducing the number of civil servants. But they did not commit to reduce France's deficit to under 3 percent of GDP next year as required by the EU. Juppe said he would reduce the deficit over five years.
The main divisions arose over immigration and Islam.
Sarkozy said the problem was "not Islam, but political Islam that wants to take control of society". He proposed to suspend family reunifications of migrants and said that France should seize control of its borders.
Juppe defended a "vision of French society that respects diversity" but warned against communitarianism.
On security, Sarkozy said that all people considered by police to be at risk of being radicalised should be "pre-emptively" locked-up.
Juppe said some of them should be kept free in order to keep a close watch on them to help dismantle terrorist networks.
An awkward moment came when candidates had to defend themselves on alleged past sins.
Juppe, who was once sentenced for abuse of public funds, said he had not enriched himself and that "if the people think I am discredited by that mistake, they won't elect me".
Sarkozy, who is under investigation in several cases including the funding of his last presidential campaign in 2012, said he was innocent and a victim of "baseness and slander".