Why the Republican Primary matters

We the French like to borrow things from the Americans. We wear blue jeans, we drink Coca-Cola, and last Sunday, voters got to participate in the first round of a Republican Primary — deciding which of the right-wing candidates would stand for President six months from now.

Why should I care?

If you’re not French, this primary might sound like a boring step in the Presidential election process — after all, many things could happen between now and then. But the French people don’t see it that way. Here’s why.

Francois Hollande, the current President, has the lowest approval rate of any French President in recent political history (15% in the latest polls). He represents the Socialist party, which is not at all socialist in the American or British sense, but would probably sit on Tony Blair’s left knee.

Even so, France is not a left-wing country: Hollande is only the second left-wing president since the 5th Republic was established in 1958. The fact that his presidency is seen as an unmitigated failure, including by his own voters, almost certainly means the Socialist party has no shot at a reelection next year.

France’s political landscape is made up of two large mainstream parties (Socialists on the left, Republicans on the right), a few smaller parties that have never won an election but can grab up to 15% of the vote, and a fast growing far-right party called Front National. It is headed by the infamous Marine Le Pen. Despite her efforts to clean up the Front National brand after her father’s racist direction, she is still associated with an extreme position and is sometimes described as a danger to the French Republic.

Now, the French vote in a two-round electoral system. In the first round, the two most popular candidates are picked out of all those who applied, then an independent second round seals the deal for one of them.

At this stage, the failure of the Socialist party means the second round would be fought out between Marine Le Pen and whoever the Republicans choose to represent them. If their candidate is hated, it gives Marine Le Pen a fair chance to become Madame President (several polls showed Nicolas Sarkozy winning by only a slight margin.) If the Republican candidate is a good one, he’ll be the next French president.

That is why so many left-wing voters took part in the Republican Primary — 15% of the 4M who showed up describe themselves as left-wing. They see the Primary as the first step in choosing who the next President will be, and a way to prevent 1) Marine Le Pen being elected and 2) the choice of a Republican candidate they would hate as much as Marine Le Pen.

Of course for the right-wing voters it’s a chance to pick the man who will represent their best interests for the next five years.

The French Republican Primary this year will very probably decide who the next French President will be. At any rate, one of the two last men standing might play a crucial political role in the next 5 years. We’ll take a closer look at the Republican party and its candidates in our next posts.