Members of France’s main right-wing Republican party began voting on Wednesday to choose their candidate for next year’s election, and the race is seen as open after a campaign focused on immigration and security.
Polls currently indicate former Health Minister Xavier Bertrand as the best-placed candidate to oust President Emmanuel Macron, but the 56-year-old moderate upset many grassroots activists by quitting the party in 2017.
Other contenders include former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Paris region director Valerie Pecresse, the only woman in the race, as well as mayor and physician Philippe Juvin.
Far-right southern MP Eric Ciotti has stood out in four televised debates in recent weeks with his hard-line stance on immigration, proposals for a French prison at “Guantanamo” for suspected Islamist terrorism and a flat tax on the 15 percent to companies.
He has the closest views to far-right writer and television commentator Eric Zemmour, who officially launched his bid for the presidency on Tuesday, seeking to flank veteran far-right leader Marine Le Pen with his anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant views. .
The roughly 150,000 members of the Republican party, which has its roots in French war hero Charles de Gaulle, are casting their votes electronically, and the results of the first round of voting will be announced Thursday afternoon.
The top two candidates will advance to a runoff, and the winner will be declared on Saturday.
>> Caught between Macron and the far right, French conservatives elect 2022 candidate
Without voting among party members, the race is considered open.
The right-wing newspaper Figaro said Republicans should offer an alternative to Zemmour’s “mix of audacity and brutality” that had brought the issue of immigration to the fore.
“For the right, the challenge is historical: to respond with firmness, serenity, consistency, experience and courage, which has been lacking so much, to this existential concern,” the newspaper said in a front-page editorial.
A final prime-time debate between the contenders took place on France 2 television Tuesday night, with each of them asked to comment on Zemmour’s candidacy, whose polls show appeal to a significant number of conservative Republicans.
“Eric Zemmour is not my kind of right wing,” said Bertrand, the head of the northeast Hauts-de-France region.
Pecresse, the head of the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris, also tried to reject Zemmour, saying she was a “woman of solutions” against a “man of provocations.”
Ciotti was the only contender in the debate who did not dismiss the dark and pessimistic video of Zemmour’s election campaign linking immigration to crime and Islamism, saying it contained “ideas shared by many French people.”
Republicans have been out of power at the national level since 2012 when former President Nicolas Sarkozy lost his bid for a second term, but they retain control of many regional assemblies and are the largest opposition bloc in parliament.
His candidate for the last presidential election in 2017, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, started out as the front-runner, but saw his campaign derailed by sordid allegations that included fraudulently employing his wife as a parliamentary aide.
Macron’s centrist party, Republic on the Move, has diverted many moderate conservatives from the Republicans, as well as important figures such as Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire and former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.