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France Embraces US-style Primaries, but Maybe Not the Sparks

  • Lisa Bryant

French politician Alain Juppe, current mayor of Bordeaux, a member of the conservative Les Republicains political party and candidate for their presidential primary, leaves a rally as he campaigns in Malakoff, Paris suburb, Oct. 8, 2016.

French politician Alain Juppe, current mayor of Bordeaux, a member of the conservative Les Republicains political party and candidate for their presidential primary, leaves a rally as he campaigns in Malakoff, Paris suburb, Oct. 8, 2016.

After Sunday's showdown between U.S. candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, France's first presidential debate this week may seem a bit staid. Yet it counts as a game changer, as the country's two main parties embrace American-style primary elections for the first time.

"Our democracy is very porous, we live in the same pop and political culture," said political scientist Nicole Bacharan, explaining the spreading U.S. influence on European politics. "And this has slowly instilled into the French culture that this is a normal, democratic way to do things."

On Thursday, seven center-right candidates will appear on prime-time TV in the first of three debates before November's conservative primary. The ruling Socialist Party follows with its own primary in January, three months before presidential elections.

A French kiosk features coverage of the U.S. debate, as France gears up for its own presidential vote. (L. Bryant/VOA)

A French kiosk features coverage of the U.S. debate, as France gears up for its own presidential vote. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Terrorism, immigration and the downsides of free trade are shaping the campaign rhetoric and voter fears. Simmering anger against the political establishment is also trending on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet there are key differences.

While businessman Donald Trump won most U.S. Republican primaries, France has little tradition of voting for political neophytes. Many here are also shocked by the free-flowing invective of the U.S. debates.

"Just when the French started to hold primaries, they're looking at what's happening in the United States," Bacharan said. "But once you start this process, there's no going back."

Low blows, or boredom?

How low the campaign rhetoric might sink in France remains to be seen. The top two conservative candidates, former president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Alain Juppe, are already trading barbs over their respective judicial scandals.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is seen on a large screen during his speech as he runs for the 2017 presidential election in Paris, France, Oct. 9, 2016.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is seen on a large screen during his speech as he runs for the 2017 presidential election in Paris, France, Oct. 9, 2016.

"The invective could mount rapidly and really degrade the quality of the debate," said analyst Madani Cheurfa of Sciences Po University in Paris, who nonetheless doubts it will hit the levels seen in recent sparring between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Rather, he worries the opposite will happen.

"The candidates may all say the same thing Thursday," he said. "There's a big risk of boredom."

While the center-right Les Republicans and the leftist Socialists have held primaries before, this is the first time both are doing so for the presidency. The field is wide open. To participate, French voters must simply pay a little over $2 and ascribe to general party values.

"French always laughed at us for entering long, drawn-out elections," said Connie Borde, vice-chairman of Democrats Abroad France. "Now, they're falling into the same trap, if you want to call it. But it's more democratic. It's not the parties choosing the candidates anymore."

Yet the status quo still largely shapes France's political system. Mainstream politicians mostly graduate from the same elite universities and face similar trajectories.

"In France, we have an idea of politics as a long history," Cheurfa said. "You start young and the endpoint, after 40 or 50 years, is the presidency of the republic."

Twists and turns

Still, there have been jolts along the way.

In 2002, far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen placed second in the first round of presidential voting that featured a disenchanted public and no fewer than 16 candidates on the ballot. The results shocked the nation. Incumbent president Jacques Chirac, whose record and popularity were underwhelming, won the runoff by a landslide.

FILE - France's far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen sings the French National anthem "La Marseillaise" after her speech in Frejus, southern France, Sept. 18, 2016.

FILE - France's far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen sings the French National anthem "La Marseillaise" after her speech in Frejus, southern France, Sept. 18, 2016.

Nearly a decade later, International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's expected run for office was sidelined by sexual assault charges. Long-shot candidate Francois Hollande stepped in and won the 2012 vote.

This election season is offering its own set of surprises. Marine Le Pen, who took over the far-right National Front party from her father, is widely polled as the country's most popular candidate. Many analysts see her winning the first round, although not the second.

Whether France's deeply unpopular president will run for a second term is another unknown. Hollande has staked his reelection on growing jobs, which has not yet happened. His Socialist party is fractured by divisions.

Which makes the winner of the conservative primaries, most are betting on either Juppe or Sarkozy, the country's probable next president, analysts say.

Yet old certainties are fading. The same voter anger that drove Trump's meteoric rise in the U.S.is also powering populist movements and anti-establishment candidates in Europe.

"Political leaders in France and other countries are looking very closely at the American election, not only because it's going to be meaningful to the future of the world, but also because they see it as meaningful to their own future," analyst Bacharan said.

"If Hillary Clinton prevails, it means there is a future for the political elites in Europe," she added. "But if she loses, which appears unlikely at this point, they know they're fried."

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