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French MP Le Maire shakes up Les Républicains primary

Pascal Pavani, AFP | French MP Bruno Le Maire speaks during a meeting in Condom, on June 11, 2015

The contest for the presidential nomination of France’s conservative Les Républicains party is heating up, with Nicolas Sarkozy competing not only against two former prime ministers, but also with a young and increasingly vocal upstart.


French MP Bruno Le Maire lashed out at Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday as Germany re-imposed controls along its border with Austria, telling France Inter radio that she had been wrong to leave EU leaders out of the decision, and mistaken to suggest that Europe could welcome “all the refugees coming from Syria and elsewhere”.

Le Maire – MP for the Eure department in Normandy – then attacked President François Hollande for allowing France “to be towed along by Germany” and promptly called for a summit where European heads of state would define a united, long-term approach to the migrant crisis.

They are the kind of big statements France is getting used to from Le Maire, who is not yet an official candidate in next year’s presidential primary, but who is making a lot of noise ahead of a widely expected bid.

“For months now, Bruno Le Maire, who presents himself as the ‘candidate of change’, has been criss-crossing France, weighing in on all the big news stories, and hogging the media limelight,” daily Le Parisien wrote on Saturday, adding that the MP's PR offensive is rattling many fellow party members.

Skipping photo ops

Slowly but surely, Le Maire has been building name recognition in a primary field that includes François Fillon and Alain Juppé – two former French prime ministers who still wield significant clout – and Sarkozy, a former president now at the helm of the main opposition party Les Républicains.

In a fast-approaching election dominated by political heavyweights, bold and somewhat provocative declarations may be the only way for Le Maire to close the gap with the primary’s frontrunners – notably Juppé and Sarkozy.

In the wake of the foiled attack on a Paris-bound Thalys train in August, Le Maire declared that France should kick out any foreigners who French intelligence agencies have linked to hardline Islam – regardless of whether they had committed any offence – echoing a similar statement by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

During a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories last week, Le Maire said he supported putting French troops on the ground in Syria to fight the Islamic State group. “It’s time to eliminate Daesh,” he said, using an Arab acronym for the jihadist militants, “The sooner the better.”

Le Maire has been a staunch critic of President Hollande, a Socialist, but has also sought to distance himself from his own party bosses. He was conspicuously absent from annual party gatherings the past two weekends, skipping the standard photo ops with the old guard.

Published politician

Le Maire is not a political newcomer, even if he has kept a low profile until now. At only 46, his résumé features impressive credentials, and an enviable and unique career.

A distinguished student of literature, he attended the École nationale d'administration, a top French university and stepping stone for entering the country’s political and business elite. On graduation in 1998, he joined the diplomatic corps, taking his first political steps as an advisor and protégé of former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin in the early 2000s.

On his website he makes a point of mentioning his February 2003 trip with de Villepin to the United Nations, when de Villepin famously announced that France would not take part in the invasion of Iraq.

By 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy had won a bitter and public feud against de Villepin for leadership of their party, then called the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), and Le Maire seemed to effortlessly adapt to the change in circumstances. His much-touted “neutrality” during the feud won him favour with Sarkozy, who appointed him Secretary for European affairs in 2008 and then his agriculture minister less than a year later.

Around that time he also published an award-winning book on politics, his second tome for Grasset, one of France’s best-known publishing houses. Le Maire can indeed boast that he is one of France’s few published politicians. To date he has penned seven books, including a critique of classical music.

Early endorsement

Few French voters have ever read Le Maire, or could have picked him out of a line-up until recently.

He first entered the public spotlight during last year’s UMP leadership election. Although he lost resoundingly to far-away favourite Sarkozy in November 2014, he was widely praised for running an earnest, clean and brave campaign.

The race allowed him to finally connect with national audiences, and to stand above other politicians. He notably said he would not seek to overturn France’s gay marriage law, insisting there were more important issues for the country’s main conservative party to tackle. That statement earned him boos from vocal religious constituents, but he won points among moderates who fear the UMP, now Les Républicains, is swinging too far to the political right.

Last year’s leadership battle won Le Maire an unprecedented base of supporters that has continued to grow with his steady stream of unconventional remarks.

Yves Jégo, an important figure within the centrist UDI party, said on Sunday he hoped that Le Maire would seek Les Républicains presidential nomination and could already count on his endorsement. “He is the only candidate who can still surprise us,” Jégo told weekly Journal du Dimanche, adding that Le Maire had the potential to “upturn the political landscape” and be a “breath of fresh air” for voters desperately seeking an alternative to five more years of Hollande, or five more years of Sarkozy.

French conservatives will almost certainly need the UDI’s backing if they want to storm back into the Elysée Palace in 2017, and Jégo’s comments have not gone unnoticed.

Le Maire remains the outsider candidate in a primary race that has yet to get started. But he's one contender that could make the race worth watching.

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