Gaullists beg French voters to give them another chance as public's head turned by populist side-show

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French president Emmanuel Macron looks on during the closing ceremony the 127th National Congress of the French Fire Brigade in Marseille – PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA/AFP

At a meeting in the mountains between Lyon and Geneva this week, Xavier Bertrand pleaded with voters to save France’s once-mighty Gaullists.

“If we don’t win this election and are not in the second round, it will be the end of the political family that is heir to General de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy,” the 56-year old conservative told a room of 250 in the town of Oyonnax in the Ain.

After two successive presidential defeats, polls suggest the country’s mainstream Right may crash out of next April’s race in round one to incumbent Emmanuel Macron and a far-Right candidate – either Marine Le Pen or her more radical rival, the polemist Eric Zemmour, should he run.

Both hogged the media spotlight this week – one over her love of cats, the other in a fiery duel with a philosopher over their Jewish roots and France’s tortured relationship with its wartime past.

Mr Zemmour accused Bernard-Henri Lévy, a philosopher, of being a “traitor” to France and the world’s worst “producers of anti-Semitism” in response to a column accusing him of being an “offence to the Jewish name” by seeking to rehabilitate collaborationist Vichy France.

BHL, as the French philosopher is known, hit back by accusing Mr Zemmour of being a fascist-in-waiting. “What would happen if the candidate won?,” he asked. “What does one do to ‘traitors’ to the nation?”

Manuel Valls, a French prime minister under the presidency of Francois Hollande, waded into the row, tweeting: “According to Zemmour… BHL (Mr Lévy) is a ‘traitor’ and a ‘cosmopolitan’ – a fine example of the rhetoric of the far-Right, as has always been the case.”

Meanwhile, President Macron promised to look France’s “history in the face” as he commemorated on Saturday the 60th anniversary of one of the darkest pages in postwar French history: the massacre of around 120 Algerians thrown into the Seine during a protest at the hands of Maurice Papon, Paris’ then police chief.

French far-right party Rassemblement National’s (RN) presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, arrives to the party’s offices in Carpentras, southeastern France, to meet supporters during an informal meeting – CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU/AFP

Mr Macron also met on yesterday/SAT the family of Samuel Paty, one year after he was beheaded by an extremist after showing his class cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.

To top it all, the centrist president, who has yet to officially announce his re-election bid, this week unveiled a £25bn plan to kick-start French industry and scored a penalty in a much-hyped charity football match.

The French mainstream Right, meanwhile, remains on the touchline.

At his local meeting, Mr Bertrand – who opinion surveys suggest is the Right’s best presidential hope – urged the crowd to avoid yet another own goal by picking a candidate with no chance of victory.

The president of the northern Hauts-de-France region is one of six hopefuls vying to run in next April’s presidential race for Les Républicains, or LR, whose candidate for the 2017 elections, François Fillon, crashed out in the first round over a fake jobs scandal for his British wife.

It was a humiliating exit for the Gaullist Right, which had been in the driving seat in France for most of the post-war period.

It would go onto haemorrhage seats in legislative elections where Mr Macron’s new LREM party won a landslide majority, taking many Republicans with it, including two successive prime ministers and top cabinet members.

LR now runs a risk of being bled dry in the upcoming election as the Macron camp and the far-Right continue to sap its moderate and more extreme flanks.

On the one hand, Mr Macron’s popular ex-prime minister Edouard Philippe, who hails from the Right, has just launched his own party, Horizons. Its aim, he insists, is not to pose a threat to his former boss but to woo more moderate LR voters and thus strengthen the French president’s hand.

Valerie Pecresse delivers a speech during a meeting in Clamart, near Paris, on October 15, 2021. – GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP

Meanwhile, the LR faces losing hardline supporters to Mr Zemmour, whose diatribes against Islam, immigration and Europe appeal to some Republicans desperately in search of a charismatic leader since the 2012 exit of Mr Sarkozy. Their former champion’s two corruption convictions this year are hardly helping his party.

Banking on next spring’s presidential race to revive its fortunes, LR must first pick a champion from a list of hopefuls ranging from the moderate to the hard-Right.

Beyond Mr Bertrand, the main challengers are Valérie Pécresse, the president of the Paris region, and Michel Barnier, the silver-haired former chief EU Brexit negotiator.

While Mr Bertrand may be the obvious choice on paper given his lead in opinion polls, these don’t decide who gets the LR ticket. That will be settled by party members in a two-round vote culminating in a congress on December 4.

Against all odds, Mr Barnier – who the French quip is better known in the UK after more than a decade in Brussels – is currently in pole position, according to a France Info poll of several LR federations.

Many attribute this to the fact that while Mr Barnier, 70, has remained staunchly loyal to his party, Mr Bertrand and Ms Pécresse left LR after the last election in protest against its former leader's radical stance.

Mr Bertrand long hoped to go it alone but both returned to the fold this week when both he and Ms Pécresse said they were rejoining the party.

“Some have doubtless regrets and resentment,” he said on Thursday, “but I never betrayed my political family”.

Whoever they pick, the Republicans say they are down but not out. Given the uncertainties of the presidential race, they still stand a chance of reaching round two but only if they pick a candidate with popular appeal.

An Ifop poll out on Friday suggested Mr Bertrand could be that person. While Mr Macron (on 25 per cent) would come out in front in round one, Mr Bertrand would come fourth on 15 per cent behind Ms Le Pen, (17 per cent) and Mr Zemmour (16 per cent).

Given the margin of error, he could yet make it to round two where some polls suggest Mr Bertrand could then go on to beat Mr Macron.

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