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Barnier is out as French Republicans split between moderate and hard right

The former Brexit negotiator had been seen as a frontrunner but has been eliminated from the race.

By Ido Vock

The French MP Eric Ciotti – who makes no secret of his ideological proximity to the far-right leader Eric Zemmour – has won the first round of the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) presidential nomination primary in France. Valérie Pécresse, a relative moderate, came second, which means that she will progress to the run-off round against Ciotti this weekend. The final result will be known on 4 December.

Xavier Bertrand and Michel Barnier, two contenders who had been viewed as the frontrunners, were eliminated, despite their hardline positions on immigration and the EU which were intended to appeal to a party membership of more than 100,000 who they correctly calculated had shifted to the hard right. Both have called on their supporters to back Pécresse in the second round.

Ciotti is the furthest right of all the Republican candidates. When asked in a TV debate whether he would use the expression “the great replacement,” which refers to a racist conspiracy theory that elites are intentionally engineering a “replacement” of the white European population by importing non-white immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, a conspiracy theory espoused by Zemmour, he said: “if we must speak of the great replacement, then I will speak of replacement”. That proximity with the far-right carries over into many of his positions on immigration and identity.

[See also: Republicans squeezed between Macron on economy and Zemmour on identity]

Pécresse positioned herself as the most moderate of the five candidates, at least on identity issues. Her economic agenda calls for the state to be slimmed down, in line with the ideology of a leader she frequently cites, Margaret Thatcher. But her moderation illustrates how far right her party has shifted: though she rejects the formulation “the great replacement”, her policy programme calls for harsh restrictions on immigration, such as streamlined deportation procedures and quotas on arrivals.  

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Barnier, the former chief Brexit negotiator, campaigned with a hard-right line on the EU and migration, notably calling for changes to French law which would end the supremacy of EU legislation in some areas. When I interviewed him in October, I wrote that he would “have to answer whether the shift from Brussels technocrat to Eurosceptic firebrand came rather too swiftly”. His party wasn’t convinced: he got 24 per cent of the vote, placing him third.  

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[See also: Michel Barnier on the EU and why he wants to lead France]

The support of the relative moderates in the party may be enough to push Pécresse over the line in the second round. Yet if she wins, it remains an open question as to whether the party will stick with her in a political landscape among the furthest right in postwar French history. Some officials and voters on the party’s right may defect to other candidates they view as more likely to win or closer to representing their ideology, such as Zemmour.

A Ciotti victory would, by contrast, risk alienating moderate voters, with those further to the right split between him, Zemmour and the National Rally leader Marine Le Pen.