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Leftist voters look to ‘crash’ France’s right-wing primary to prevent Sarkozy comeback

Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, AFP | Supporters of right-wing Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé at a presidential primary campaign rally in Villeurbanne, France on September 29, 2016.

Thousands of left-wing voters in France are considering casting ballots in November’s primary to choose the conservative presidential nominee in an effort to derail a comeback by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.


Three recent studies reveal that between 260,000 and 560,000 traditionally leftist voters may be planning to “crash” the right-wing primary in November to sway the results in favour of former prime minister and current Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé.

One of France’s most prominent political research centres, Cevipof, said this week that around 10 percent of primary participants could turn out to be left-wing sympathisers in disguise. Other polls put the figure as high as 16 percent.

The prospect of such an unusual political collusion has drawn wide attention in the French media, forcing politicians to weigh in on the subject.

“If you invite the left wing to vote for you, it means you are willing to compromise with the left in order to win,” an irate Sarkozy, who is seeking to reclaim the Elysée Palace next year, told Radio Classique Wednesday morning. “That’s called lying and disloyalty.”

Sarkozy has also described the move as “theft” and “perjury”, even as his rivals in the primary called on citizens of all political stripes to take part. Juppé, former PM Jean-Pierre Raffarin and François Fillon, who served as premier under Sarkozy, have all said the two rounds of voting on November 20 and 27 should be open.

Fillon waded into the fray on Monday, arguing that “no one is genetically right- or left-wing … everyone should vote”.

In contrast to elections in Britain and the United States, participation in recent French primaries has not been restricted to dues-paying, card-carrying members. Taking a cue from an internal contest organised by the Socialist Party in 2011, the main opposition Les Républicains party (formerly the UMP) has invited all eligible voters to participate – as long as they sign a “charter of right-wing values” and contribute €2 to the general election campaign.

Officially billed as “the primaries of the right and centre”, the election includes six Les Républicains candidates and the president of the socially conservative Christian Democratic Party. Sarkozy and Juppé are the heavy favourites in the race, and are expected to face off in a very tight run-off.

The fact that left-wingers are willing to sneak into enemy territory to affect the primary’s outcome appears to reflect their fierce disdain for Sarkozy as much as their disillusion with the ruling Socialist Party.

Averting a Sarkozy-Le Pen run-off

Socialist President François Hollande has seen his job approval ratings plummet to record lows during his first, and maybe only, five-year term. Policies aimed at being market-friendly have deteriorated his credibility among left-wing voters while doing little or nothing to improve the country’s ailing economy.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen is poised to obtain more votes than Hollande in the first round of the presidential elections in April, meaning she will square off against either Juppé or Sarkozy in the second round.

Left-wing voters say they are ready to join the right-wing primary now in order to thwart a Sarkozy-Le Pen presidential run-off down the line.

“I want to block Sarkozy from getting to the general election,” said Thomas*, a 40-year-old media professional, who said he considered himself a left-leaning voter. “Sarkozy is a violent politician. I don’t support Juppé’s political ideas, but at least he will not tear down and divide the country.”

Martine Zwerin, a retired museum worker, said she was very ambivalent about voting in a right-wing primary, but was likely to do it. “Anything but Sarkozy,” she insisted. “[Sarkozy] is a crook, he has been involved in so many criminal investigations. He does not care about people, only about himself,” Zwerin, who usually votes for Socialist candidates, argued.

Sarkozy has remained wildly unpopular among left-wing voters since he left office after one term in 2012, and their animosity has only deepened with his campaign promises to crack down on immigrants and deregulate France’s economy. While adopting a similar approach to economic matters, Juppé has proposed a more inclusive vision of French society.

Thomas said he had no qualms about signing a statement vowing that he shares “right-wing values” as stipulated by the primary rules, even if it’s not true. He said he is acutely aware that whoever wins Les Républicains' primary will likely become France’s next president.

“The stakes are way too high,” he said. Zwerin agreed. “I don’t agree at all with [with the statement]," she said. "But it’s for a good cause.”

A headache for the left

Left-wing voters meddling in France’s right-wing primary will certainly be problematic for Sarkozy, who appears to enjoy a slight advantage over Juppé among the rank-and-file members of Les Républicains, a party he rebranded from the UMP in May 2015.

It may also pose a problem for some on the left. Casting a ballot in a rival party’s primary could simply be interpreted as an acknowledgment that the Socialists will lose next year’s election.

Clément, a 37-year-old Socialist party supporter in Paris, said it was a strategy destined to backfire. “It’s not the same to win a primary election with 1 million voters and win with 3 million. The more votes the right-wing candidate gets, the more that person will appear to be a unifying and legitimate presidential candidate,” he said.

Some say it is the very soul of France’s political left that is at stake.

“Above all, do not participate,” Najat-Vallaud Belkacem, France’s education minister and a rising star within the Socialist Party, told FRANCE 2 television on Sunday. “It would be completely unhealthy to get involved with Les Républicains’ primary, which is based on the values of the right.”

*Name has been changed

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