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French election 2022: centre-right candidates fail to find their voice in debate

The Republican party is squeezed between Emmanuel Macron on the economy and Éric Zemmour on identity.

By Ido Vock

Five candidates for the presidential nomination of France’s long-dominant Republicans faced off on Monday evening (8 November), but it was two men not at the debate who dominated it – two spectral figures haunting the French centre-right.

The first is Emmanuel Macron, who emerged from nowhere nearly five years ago to win the last presidential election, a contest for which the then-Republican candidate, François Fillon, was long the favourite. The second is Éric Zemmour, the far-right polemicist who has rocketed up in the polls with his embrace of long-marginal conspiracy theories. (By contrast, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has dropped in the polls as Zemmour has risen, featured less prominently, an unusual situation after decades of the Le Pen dynasty dominating the far right in France.)

Facing pressure from both Macron and Zemmour, the would-be Republican candidates – one woman, four men – had the task of defining what role the centre-right should play in this upturned political landscape. The takeaway from the gruelling three-hour debate – largely civil but with deep tensions visible nonetheless – was that they have yet to come up with a convincing answer. 

Five candidates faced off: frontrunners Xavier Bertrand, the leader of the Hauts-de-France region; Valérie Pécresse, head of the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris; and Michel Barnier, the former chief Brexit negotiator for the EU. Two more marginal figures, Éric Ciotti, a hard-right member of the National Assembly, and Philippe Juvin, a doctor and former MEP, also participated.

The party rank and file will select a candidate at a congress in December. All the hopefuls have judged that the mood in the party has shifted to the right, in particular over issues of identity and immigration.

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The debate opened with host David Pujadas asking the candidates where they would make their first visit as president. All answered with a destination inside the borders of France, with Ciotti naming a Marseille housing estate supposedly controlled by drug dealers as a symbol of his desire to re-establish order in France. Barnier selected an unspecified industrial area, where he would restate his desire to see France become Europe’s leading agricultural and industrial power.

None said they would go to Berlin, the place the last three presidents visited first upon taking office. The oversight was perhaps symbolic of the changing mood in the Republican party, squeezed between Macron’s pro-Europeanism and the hardline Euroscepticism of Zemmour and Le Pen.

The first hour of the debate was dedicated to an extended, rather technical discussion of economic policy. Throughout, Macron’s pro-business reforms cast a long shadow on the Republican candidates, whose party was until 2017 the strongest mainstream voice for a liberal economic approach. 

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All five candidates agreed on the broad need to address France’s public debt, which stood at 115.7 per cent of GDP in 2020, the highest level since 1949. Yet they did not convince when attempting to pin the blame for that rise on Macron’s supposed mismanagement of the state. The deficit and the public debt both jumped significantly in 2020 because the pandemic year was entirely atypical, requiring an unprecedented boom in government spending to compensate for the economy shutting down.

By contrast, France’s public debt had stabilised at about 98 per cent of GDP in the years between 2017 – when Macron took office – and 2019, making attempts to blame him for fiscal fecklessness ring hollow. 

All candidates had similar prescriptions for how to boost France’s economy: all would cut taxes and eliminate the 35-hour workweek, while most agreed on the need to get rid of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers. 

Ciotti’s programme, the most radical, would eliminate estate taxes and impose a flat income tax of 15 per cent on most workers, spiritually in line with the Thatcherite policies advocated by Fillon in 2017. By contrast, Barnier, playing up his image as an elder statesman able to rise above the fray, warned against making promises that could not be kept. 

[See also: Michel Barnier’s post-Brexit warning to the UK]

If the figure of Macron dominated the discussion of the economy, it was Zemmour who coloured the later segments on national identity and immigration, even if some candidates carefully avoided mentioning his name at all. (Barnier referred to “a person who does not have the same [political] history as us, who confuses [wartime collaborationist leader Philippe] Pétain with [Free France leader Charles] de Gaulle”.)

The bind was most evident when the candidates were asked whether they would use the expression “great replacement”, referring to a racist conspiracy theory holding that elites are intentionally engineering a “replacement” of the white European population by importing non-white immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. The expression is a favourite of Zemmour. 

[See also: The TV-friendly fascist who thinks he can be the next president of France]

Moderates Barnier and Pécresse said they would not use the term, Bertrand refused to say whether he would or not, while Ciotti calmly explained that “if we must speak of the great replacement, then I will speak of replacement”. Yet whether they said they would use the term or not, conscious of Zemmour’s growing appeal to their voters, all the candidates fell over themselves to take the hardest line on immigration, variously offering quotas on entry of foreigners, moratoriums and streamlined deportation procedures.

Squeezed between Macron on the economy and Zemmour on identity, the French centre-right is having difficulty defining itself. The first debate in advance of the selection of the Republican candidate in early December provided few indications that the party is yet able to stand up to its two main rivals.

[See also: French election 2022: Can anyone beat President Emmanuel Macron?]