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France seeks new president but could get familiar face

AFP , Wednesday 31 Aug 2016
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy, former head of the Les Republicains political party speaks at the French employer's body MEDEF union summer forum on the campus of the HEC School of Management in Jouy-en-Josas, near Paris, France, August 31, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
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A potential presidential bid by centrist former minister Emmanuel Macron has added to an already complex picture in French politics, with the left and right in turmoil eight months before the election.

The 38-year-old Macron, who resigned as economy minister on Tuesday to "begin a new stage in my fight" without yet declaring whether he will stand for president, would be a fresh face in a field of over-familiar candidates.

Abrasive former president Nicolas Sarkozy will fight it out with the more moderate Alain Juppe, a one-time prime minister, for the centre-right nomination in a primary in November.

Socialist President Francois Hollande, Macron's former mentor who catapulted him into the government in 2014, is playing the waiting game before deciding whether to stand for re-election despite historically low opinion poll ratings dragged down by stubborn unemployment.

But while Macron's reformist approach makes him attractive to some voters, it would turn French politics on its head if the former investment banker manages to secure the nomination as a centre-left candidate, never mind win next May.

"I don't think he'll be a candidate because he just won't have the means to do so," Bruno Jeanbart, of the OpinionWay polling institute, told AFP.

"He wouldn't win a Socialist Party primary and if he stands as an independent he would come up against far too many difficulties in the French system."

Jeanbart said Macron's move was a sign that "a large part of the left does not believe that Hollande can be re-elected".

Other candidates are moving into the vacuum created by Hollande's weakness.

Far-left rebel Jean-Luc Melenchon scored an eye-catching 11 percent in the first round of the 2012 presidential election.

If he repeats that score next year, it would make it nigh impossible for Hollande to poll the 25 percent thought necessary to reach the second round.

"The left has two problems -- it is weak overall and it is divided," Jeanbart said.

"There will be a Socialist Party candidate and Melenchon, meaning the sums just don't add up and will make it extremely difficult for Hollande to reach the second round."

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN), is likely to qualify for the second-round runoff, just as her father Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002, rocking French politics to its core.

The FN has performed consistently well in elections since 2012, and most polls show the anti-immigration party would score at least 25 percent.

Bernard Sananes, of the Elabe polling institute, said Hollande faces "a series of insurmountable barriers".

"He has to win the primary, qualify for the second round in 2017 and win the election. And for the moment, not a single opinion poll says he will win," he told the daily Le Figaro.

Victory therefore is for the right to grab.

While Macron is stealing the headlines, many analysts agree that the winner next year is likely to be decided in the centre-right primary.

"It is clear that the real presidential election will take place in November and not May," Jeanbart said.

"The winner of the primary will win in May."

Sarkozy launched his campaign trailing Juppe -- France's most popular politician despite a 2004 conviction for corruption -- but appears to be closing the gap fast with three months to go.

A TNS Sofres poll showed both candidates would score around 34 percent in the first round of the primary.

Sarkozy has shown he has lost nothing of his brash approach, controversially calling for a national ban on the burkini, while Juppe has urged an end to the "mania" surrounding the Islamic swimsuit that has become a hot-button issue in France.

Jean Garrigues, author of a respected book on presidential elections, said Hollande will stand a chance only if Sarkozy defeats Juppe.

"Hollande needs a hard-right candidate (against him) so that he can then get the centrist votes," Garrigues said. "He needs it to be Sarkozy."

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