France's Sarkozy and Juppé face underdog rivals in presidential primary debate

AFP | The five other candidates in France's right-wing primary (L to R): Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, Jean-François Copé, François Fillon and Bruno Le Maire

The French press has all but written off France’s right-wing presidential primary as a duel between Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy. The five other candidates in the race hope to use Thursday night’s televised debate to change that impression.


The "underdog" presidential hopefuls lashed out at the media and opinion polls this week, blaming them for painting the main opposition Les Républicains’ primary as a contest solely between Juppé, a former prime minister, and Sarkozy, France’s president from 2007 to 2012.

“French people simply don’t know whom they will vote for yet,” Jérôme Chartier, the spokesman for former prime minister François Fillon, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

MP Bruno Le Maire offered a similar indictment the same day, telling RTL radio that the media’s obsession with Juppé and Sarkozy was “preventing the emergence of other candidates.”

The challengers have insisted that Les Républicains' party primaries – which will be held in two rounds on November 20 and 27 – are still wide open. Opinion polls ahead of the 2017 presidential election however consistently suggest Juppé and Sarkozy enjoy a commanding lead.

The most recent survey, published on Monday by French pollster Kantar Sofres-OnePoint, showed Juppé as the frontrunner with 42 percent support and Sarkozy running second with around 28 percent. Following far behind are Fillon, Le Maire (both around 11 percent), moderate MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (4 percent), MP Jean-Francois Copé (2 percent), and MP Jean-Frédéric Poisson (2 percent).

'Write a different ending'

In the run-up to Thursday’s debate, to be broadcast live on TF1 channel starting at 9pm Paris time, the underdogs have urged French voters to forget the opinion polls and turn on their televisions.

“We can feel the momentum on the ground, in our rallies, when we go knocking on people’s doors, and this has not been accurately portrayed in the media,” sources inside Le Maire’s campaign told FRANCE 24 this week.

Kosciusko-Morizet's advisers pointed out that in the ruling Socialist Party’s 2011 primaries, candidate Arnaud Montebourg wound up claiming more than 17 percent of the votes in the first round, five to seven points more than what opinion polls had predicted – largely thanks to a strong debate performance.

Les Républicains will hold three debates before the first-round of voting on November 20.

“French voters may write a different ending to this story,” Fillon campaign spokeswoman Valérie Boyer said. “They are starting to realise that before the first-round poll, they will have three opportunities to decide who they think is the best candidate.”

A battle of ideas

Campaign representatives told FRANCE 24 this week that the seven primary candidates would finally enjoy equal footing before the cameras as a result of the prime-time clash.

The political spectacle will observe strict rules. Candidates will have one minute at the start of the debate to introduce themselves before answering questions from moderators.

The first hour of the broadcast will focus on economic and social issues, with the second on security, terrorism and France's unique brand of secularism, known as laïcité. Equal time has been promised to all the participants, who will be allowed to respond to each other directly, but in 30 seconds or less.

The format will be a welcome change from the lopsided coverage of the candidates so far. According to the weekly Journal de Dimanche, Juppé and Sarkozy’s names are mentioned in the French media three to six times more than their lesser-known rivals.

Sarkozy’s name was mentioned 6,854 times in September, while Juppe earned around 3,330 citations. In comparison Fillon was mentioned 2,011 times, Le Maire 1,762 and Kosciusko-Morizet 1,038.

In addition, Juppé and Sarkozy have both basked in the spotlight of recent prime-time interviews on the popular "L’Émission politique" programme on France 2 television, a privilege that so far has not been extended to their primary opponents.

During his interview with RTL on Tuesday, Le Maire welcomed the debates, noting that they would finally allow the candidates to “talk about the real issues” and to “compare our ideas and platforms.”

A campaign adviser told FRANCE 24 that Le Maire was aware that the roughly 15 minutes he will be allowed to speak on Thursday were precious. “It’s a complicated task. He will need to be convincing in both style and content, providing short answers that set him apart from the other candidates,” he said. “We keep hearing they all share the same ideas. This debate is finally the opportunity to show everyone that’s not true.”


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