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POLITICS

Race officially opens to be the next president of France

France's presidential race accelerates on Wednesday as the candidates vying for the conservative nomination, including ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and favourite Alain Juppé, officially open their campaigns to try to win back the Elysee Palace.

Race officially opens to be the next president of France
Sarkozy, Juppé, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, François Fillon, Jean-Fréderic Poisson, Hervé Mariton, Bruno Le Maire, Jean-François Copé. AFP

The stakes are high with polls showing that the winner of a duel between the two leading Republicans party candidates, Sarkozy and ex-PM Alain Juppe, would be clear favourite to win the election next May.

The other candidates vying to run for the Elysée are: Bruno Le Maire, who aged, 46-years-old is the youngest candidate, Francois Fillion, the former Prime Minister under Sarkozy, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the only female candidate in the line-up, Jean-François Copé a former party chief and Jean-Fréderic Poisson the president of the Christian Democrats party. The candidacy of Herve Mariton was not put forward as had initially been expected.

Once the eight candidates are named on Wednesday, the party and its centrist allies will then hold two rounds of voting to select their nominee on November 20 and 27.

National identity and Islam have emerged as key themes in the French centre-right contest, which has echoes of US Republican nominee Donald Trump's campaign for the White House.

Sarkozy is a brash right-winger and a divisive figure in French politics, while ex-prime minister and Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe has styled himself as a unifying force.

“The candidates all agree on the economy,” Thomas Guenole, a political scientist and author of a book on Sarkozy's comeback said, referring to their consensus on cutting taxes and relaxing France's 35-hour working week.

“The only issues on which they create divisions are the four Is: Islam, identity, immigration, insecurity,” he said.

President Francois Hollande is yet to confirm if he will stand for re-election as the Socialist party's candidate in a bid to defy his
historically low approval ratings.

On the far-right, the National Front is prepared for battle, with its leader Marine Le Pen widely forecast to win the first round of voting in April and then fail in the second round against a mainstream candidate.

Key facts about the man who wants to make France 'happy'(Favourite Alain Juppé. AFP)



Juppé the favourite

Juppé, 71, France's most popular politician, has been the favourite to emerge victorious from the start, but Sarkozy has nearly closed the gap with hardline proposals designed to woo voters reeling from a string of jihadist attacks.

The 61-year-old politician, who led France from 2007 to 2012, has vowed a “merciless” fight against the Islamist extremists who have killed 238 people nationwide since January 2015.

Declaring French identity to be under attack, he has declared war on the Islamic burkini swimsuit, the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in universities and other practices he sees as “un-French”.

“If you want to become French, you speak French, you live like the French. We will no longer settle for integration that does not work, we will require assimilation,” he told a rally on Monday.



'Fuel on the fire'

Juppe, a moderate who served two years as premier under Jacques Chirac and also was foreign minister under Sarkozy, has taken the opposite approach.

Accusing Sarkozy of “pouring fuel on the fire” with his calls for a state ban on the burkini, Juppe has tried to sell voters on what he sees as a “happy”, secure French identity.

Vowing to knit together a fractured nation, he has promised to “reach out” to the vast majority of Muslims who adhere to France's strict secular values.

Juppe has undergone a radical makeover from the grey technocrat who spent years in the political desert over a fake jobs scandal at Paris City Hall in the 1990s to benign elder statesman.

He has repeatedly made overtures to centrists as well as to leftists, who can vote in the primary if they pay two euros and sign a charter declaring they adhere to centrist or conservative values.

(Photo: AFP)



'War chief v wise man'

For Jerome Fourquet of Ifop pollsters, the choice between “a war chief and someone who is wiser, more reassuring and brings people together” will come down to whether the French believe the country is, as Sarkozy says, “at war”.

A Harris Interactive poll last week predicted a tie between the two in the first round of the primary, with Juppe going on to win the run-off a week later by 52 percent to Sarkozy's 48 percent.

Among their other rivals are Sarkozy's former prime minister Francois Fillon, his former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who made a failed bid for Paris mayor.

For Fourquet “the ideological centre of gravity of the right is closer to Nicolas Sarkozy's positions than those of Alain Juppe.”

But Sarkozy is also hobbled by his legacy, seen as underwhelming economically and he is disliked by a majority of French people.

Fourquet warned of a possible bid by leftist and centrist voters to block his return by voting in the primary for Juppe.

Their calculation, he said, could be: “If we don't get involved we could be forced to elect him (Sarkozy) in six months' time” to prevent a National Front presidency under Le Pen.

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JOHN LICHFIELD

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

As the French government and unions continue their increasingly bitter struggle over pension reform, John Lichfield looks at who is winning the battle for public opinion and which side will back down first.

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Over one million people took to the streets of France again on Tuesday to protest against the “cruelty” and “brutality” of a modest pension reform.

The crowds – 1.27m  in total –  were probably the biggest of their kind since December 1995 when the late President Jacques Chirac was eventually forced to dump a similar (but more radical) change in the French retirement system.

On the other hand, a second 24-hour strike against the wicked notion of working to the age of 64 was substantially weaker yesterday.  Trains, schools, oil refineries, power stations and government offices were disrupted but much less so than on the first “day of action” on January 19th.

Who is winning the war?

The government has certainly lost the communications battle. It had hoped that opposition to its pension reform would be melting by now. The numbers opposing the change have grown on the street and in the opinion polls.

And yet President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne show no signs of giving way.

Cold feet among the government’s parliamentary troops and allies on the centre-right will no doubt grow colder. There will be some extra concessions for women who have broken their careers to start families and, maybe, for people who started work in their teens.

But Macron is determined to stand by the “cruel, brutal, unjust” proposal that by the year 2030 French people should work officially until they are 64 – when most Europeans  already work until they are 65 are older.

He has little choice. He has painted himself into a corner.  His second term, scarcely begun, will be a domestic wasteland if he gives way.

We are therefore only at the start of the conflict. There will be two further days of action, or inaction, on Tuesday, February 7th and Saturday, February 11th. The text of the reform will go before the National Assembly on Monday.

The country is likely to be disrupted, periodically and maybe continuously, until the end of March.

Both sides now face awkward decisions on strategy.

The eight trades union federations have been unusually united so far. They have agreed a pattern of one-day strikes and marches of increasing frequency in the hope that rising numbers on the streets will somehow convince Macron that he cannot reform France against its will.

The small increase in the size of marches nationwide on Tuesday was a victory for the unions of sorts. But it fell short of the kind of mass revolt – 1,500,000 or more on the streets – that some union leaders had hoped for.

Radical voices within the union movement, including Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) now suggest that it is time to shift to a strategy of continuous strikes in key industries, from railways to oil refineries to power plants. Some sections of his federation are already threatening open-ended stoppages to try to bring the country to its knees.

It was, they point out, long strikes on the railways and elsewhere which forced Chirac to back down in 1995, not the scale of the marches on the street.

The more moderate union voices, led by Laurent Berger of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), say such a strategy would be a calamity. Long queues at petrol stations or a long shut-down on the railways and Paris Metro would anger public opinion.

The February holidays are approaching. A collision threatens between two French popular obsessions: the right to go on holidays and the right to retire early.

If the unions disrupt holiday travel, Berger points out, they will lose the support of part of the public on the sanctity of early retirement.

There is therefore a strong possibility that the united union front will shatter in the next couple of weeks.

Macron also face a strategic choice between soft and hard lines. That choice may already have been made.

Macron and especially his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne have tried so far to make the consensual argument that reform is needed to make the state French pension system more “fair” and to protect it from eventual collapse. That may be true but it is not immediately true.

Their hope was that voters of the centre and moderate left could be persuaded reluctantly to support a just and necessary reform. That approach has failed.

There are signs that Macron is switching to a different argument.

The French pension system is in permanent, massive deficit – €33 billion a year, equivalent to half the defence budget, is taken from general taxation to stop the pensions system for retired public workers from going bust.

The present system is a kind of official Ponzi scheme which only survives if active workers and their employers  pay the pensions of the retired. But there is a  permanent imbalance, which will grow worse in the years ahead. Only massive subsidies from the taxpayer keep the Ponzi scheme alive.

The pension system therefore acts as a ball-and-chain on the French economy, Macron and his government argue. It needs to be reformed, not just for the sake of future pensioners but for the sake of creating jobs now.

There is a great deal of truth in that. But it is, in French terms, the kind of unashamedly “right wing” or liberal argument, which Macron and Borne had hoped  to avoid.

The new government communications strategy abandons all hope of persuading the broad Left. It is aimed at centre-right voters and especially at centre-right opposition deputies whose votes the government needs to push the reform through the National Assembly.

The centre-right Les Républicains have long made exactly the economic argument about pension reform that Macron is now making. He hopes to galvanise, or embarrass, the waverers in their ranks.

Whether that works any better than the previous “just reform” argument remains to be seen. The French centre-right has never been celebrated for its consistency.

In any case, the government appears to be preparing not just one but two constitutional “jokers” or “trumps” to ensure that it wins the parliamentary card game on pension reform.

On top of Article 49.3 (which allows some legislation to be approved by decree without a normal vote), the government is considering cutting debate in the Assembly to 20 days by using the rarely employed “guillotine” powers under Article 47.1.

Either would be cue for much shrieking by the opposition and much anger, and some violence, on the streets. Macron’s popularity, already shrinking, would doubtless collapse.

In a sense, he has nothing to fear. He cannot run again. Après moi le déluge. It would be left to his potential centrist successors to pick up the pieces in 2027 against an emboldened Far Right.

But what a mess. What extreme methods – and what potentially extreme consequences – to enact what is, in all conscience, a sensible and modest reform.

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