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Trump overshadows France's final centre-right primary debate

Screengrab | The contenders for the French centre-right presidential candidacy clashed in a third and final primary debate on November 17, 2016 in Paris.

The fallout of Donald Trump’s shock election victory dominated the final French centre-right primary debate Thursday night as contenders for the presidential candidacy clashed on a range of foreign policy issues.


Seven candidates – six men and one woman – faced off in a Paris studio in a decisive debate just days before French voters go to the polls Sunday in the first round of the Les Républicains party primaries, a historic first in French politics.

Thursday night’s debate kicked off with the contenders asked to detail their foreign policy platforms, particularly their policies on US-French relations following Trump’s victory in the November 8 US presidential election.

"Mr. Trump was elected by Americans, it’s the choice of the American people. The choice here concerns the future president of France,” protested former French prime minister François Fillon.

But the American president-elect continued to overshadow the debate as the French presidential hopefuls were pressed to discuss the impact of Trump’s victory on foreign policy issues ranging from the Syrian crisis, France’s relations with Russia and the future of the NATO military alliance.

Frontrunner Alain Juppé – a veteran politician who has served as French prime minister and foreign minister in the past – broke down “the shock” of the Trump win on three policy issues: trade, defence and sustainable development.

VIDEO: The battle for the centre-right's presidential nomination

On trade, Juppé noted that Trump in the White House could see “protectionism in the United States, which would be a regression for Europe". On defence, Juppé noted that “Mr. Trump says Europeans have to pay more. But we have to know who will pay what". Finally, on sustainable development, the 71-year-old centrist politician said: “There is no question for us to stop fighting against global warming.”

Nevertheless, Juppé stressed that “the people of America have spoken and we have to work with the new US president”.

It was left to the sole female contender for the candidacy, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, to condemn Trump’s controversial positions on the campaign trail. “What is detestable about Trump’s discourse, the racism, sexism and homophobia, remains deplorable and is not any more acceptable since he was elected,” stressed Kosciusko-Morizet. “But we have to work with him. The question is how, in this new context, can we defend French interests in the best way.”

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy predicted an upsurge in "aggressiveness" in the way Americans defend their "interests", and advocated a "buy European act" that would “mark the return of France and Europe on the international scene".

Choosing between ‘suitcase and coffin’ in Syria

The candidates also discussed the Syrian crisis, with Sarkozy affirming that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “does not represent, in my opinion or in the opinion of humanists, the future of Syria".

But Fillon was more conciliatory towards the Syrian regime, noting that Assad was still in power because he still had support in some quarters, especially among the Alawite and Christian minorities. “Why do the Christians of Syria support Assad?” asked Fillon before answering: “Because they prefer him to Sunni extremism."

"In case of a fall of the regime," he added, “the Christians of the Middle East will have the choice between the suitcase or the coffin."

The stakes of the final centre-right debate were high, with the winner of the primary set to be the favourite to become French president next year, given the weakness of the ruling Socialists and the record unpopularity of current President François Hollande, who has yet to declare whether he will run for a second term in office.

Given the poor ratings of the French left, experts widely believe the centre-right candidate will face off against Marine Le Pen, head of the extreme right National Front party, in the second round of the presidential election next year. Traditionally, political parties across the ideological spectrum tend to come together before a second round face off to block a far-right National Front election victory.

Le Pen was among the first European politicians to congratulate Trump on his election victory last week.

Fillon catches up in pre-debate polls

The race for the Les Républicains party nomination is widely viewed as a two-man race between Sarkozy and Juppé. However in recent days, Fillon has enjoyed a sudden spike in the poll ratings.

An OpinionWay survey published Tuesday showed Fillon, who had previously been languishing in a distant third place, taking 25 percent of likely voters, putting him neck and neck with his former boss Sarkozy.

Similarly, an Ifop-Fiducial poll for Sud Radio released earlier Thursday saw Fillon getting 27 percent of votes in Sunday’s first round, versus 31 percent for Juppé and 30 percent for Sarkozy.

French voters will pick the conservative presidential nominee in two rounds of voting scheduled for November 20 and 27. The winner will move on to the general election – also a two-round ballot set for April and May of next year. 

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