Veteran French politician Michel Barnier will debate fellow right-wing presidential candidates Monday in a first televised debate the struggling Republicans party hopes will energize their flagging campaign against Emmanuel Macron.
Barnier, best-known outside France as the former EU Brexit negotiator, has benefited in recent weeks from a flurry of positive headlines about his chances of clinching the nomination for the Republicans (LR).
His supporters promote the 70-year-old as a possible “French Joe Biden” — a moderate, grey-haired statesman capable of uniting his divided political family.
The Republicans is a traditional right-wing party that traces its roots back to post-war leader Charles de Gaulle.
Its rank-and-file will be called upon to choose between him and four other rivals at a congress on December 4, with polls still showing long-time favourite Xavier Bertrand as the most credible candidate.
“I wager that it is going to help bring us together,” one of the party’s senior figures, Senate president Gerard Larcher, said of Monday’s debate, the first of four planned over the next month.
As well as providing unity, party leaders also hope the debates will put the Republicans in the limelight. Early campaigning has been dominated by a far-right TV pundit who has not even officially announced his run for the presidency.
Eric Zemmour has eclipsed traditional far-right leader Marine Le Pen since September and some polls show him as the closest rival to President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron, 43, is widely seen as the favourite to win next April, though analysts warn that the election remains highly unpredictable.
– Facing failure? –
LR members, who number just over 100,000, are expected to follow Monday night’s debate particularly closely ahead of the nominating process next month.
Of the three leading candidates, Bertrand, the moderate head of the northern Hauts-de-France region, is seen by 54 percent of LR members as “in a position to win the presidency”, according to a poll released Monday.
Only 26 percent saw Barnier as best placed, and 16 percent favoured Valerie Pecresse, the head of the greater Paris region, who has struggled to make an impact so far.
But Bertrand publicly quit the party in 2017. At one point he even said he would shun the primary and run as an independent, only to relent last month under pressure.
Analysts say this could count against him in the nominating process, whereas Barnier is seen as having shown loyalty to the party over a decades-long career that has taken him from his home in the French Alps to Paris and then Brussels.
But the polls currently suggest that none of the current LR candidates will make it past the first round of the two-stage election. That would mark another crushing setback for a party which counts de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and Nicolas Sarkozy as past presidents.
Sarkozy, who remains popular among right-wing voters, has been convicted twice this year, effectively ending any chances he has of attempting another comeback after a first failed attempt five years ago.
In 2017, the party suffered humiliation and disappointment when its presidential candidate, Francois Fillon, became embroiled in multiple financial scandals which saw the hardline former prime minister eliminated in the first round.