PARIS - If all goes well, Alain Juppe may move into the Elysee presidential palace next May.
The septuagenarian former prime minister and current mayor of Bordeaux has been leading in the polls for months, scoring points for his low-key humor and moderate stances on hot-button issues like Islam and immigration.
But in recent days his comfortable margin has been narrowing. And as French citizens head to the polls Sunday for the first round of the conservative primaries, some wonder if the “Trump effect” could boomerang in France.
“Mr. Trump’s election is frightening many politicians,” said analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. “And that fear could play in many different directions.”
Indeed, the U.S. election results prove just how wrong predictions can be. As elsewhere in Europe, Trump’s win has been resonating as a wakeup call in France, triggering fears — and hopes — that next spring’s presidential elections may deliver a similar upset.
This past week has seen two popular outsiders take new steps in consolidating support, as far-right leader Marine Le Pen inaugurated her campaign headquarters in Paris — not far from the Elysee — and maverick ex-investment banker Emmanuel Macron threw his hat into the race.
Many of same issues playing out in the U.S. campaign are also resonating in France. Voters are disenchanted with the status quo, worried about jobs, and fearful of the downsides of immigration, globalization and militant Islam. These concerns are powering a hunger for new faces and new solutions.
All of this has sent Juppe and many other mainstream candidates scrambling to rebrand, eager to ditch their insider image.
“All of them are criticizing the elite, the establishment and promising change,” said Jean-Eric Branaa, a U.S. expert and professor at Paris II University. “And of course, all of them are part of the establishment. So voters are quite puzzled.”
Among the seven contenders in Sunday’s primary, for example, two are former prime ministers, one is ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, while the other four are veteran politicians. When candidate Jean-Francois Coppe vastly underestimated the cost of a croissant recently, his rivals and the media pounced, suggesting he was disconnected with the concerns of ordinary voters.
Juppe, too, has also been quick to note he does his own shopping (at the Monoprix, near Bordeaux’ city hall). He has been credited for transforming the southwestern city — not to mention his own image. He was among the country’s most loathed politicians in the 1990s, when he served as prime minister.
But ahead of Sunday’s vote, polls show a last-minute surge away from Juppe and in favor of another former prime minister, Francois Fillon, who is now running a tight race with Sarkozy for second place.
“Juppe is too old,” said 19-year-old student Victor Lebrun, who is nonetheless uncertain who he will vote for. “I think we need someone who is young, who really understands how people are thinking.”
The two rounds of conservative voting will prove an early test of how voter sentiments pan out in the ballot box. The ruling Socialists hold their own elections in December, marking the first time both parties hold presidential primaries.
Still uncertain is whether the incumbent and deeply unpopular leader, Francois Hollande, will run for re-election, but many experts have written off his chances of winning.
Complicating matters, French voters are allowed to cast their ballots for either — or both — primaries, regardless of their party affiliation.
Entrepreneur Christophe de Courson plans to vote for Fillon in the primaries, but he is eyeing a very different candidate when it comes to next April’s presidential poll.
“I think he’ll cause waves,” he said of Macron, who quit his job as economy minister earlier this year to launch his own political movement called “En Marche!” (“Forward!”). Macron is not running in either of the primaries, trying to sell himself to both the French right and left. He still faces the task of collecting the 500 signatures from elected officials necessary to get on the ballot.
“He really knows the issues, and he has a political plan,” de Courson added. “The fact you can’t label him is a plus.”
Far-right leader Le Pen is a more formidable challenge. The National Front head who has been coasting on populist sentiments for months, was among the first to congratulate Trump on his victory. Today, she sees it as a harbinger of her own.
A decade ago, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second-round presidential runoff. He was soundly beaten, in what many considered a referendum against extremism.
Until the U.S. vote, few believed the younger Le Pen could win either. Now, some believe 2017 could be different. Trump, they say, has made once-taboo discourse and positions more acceptable.
“People could vote for Marine Le Pen in the second round, saying, why not after all?” said analyst Branaa. “I don’t think she’s going to win. But she’s going to come pretty close.”