Michel Barnier out, hard-Right backer of Zemmour in for final run to lead French conservatives

Valerie Pecresse, left, and Eric Ciotti

A hard-Right MP who wants to build a French Guantanamo is a surprise finalist nominee to represent France's main conservative party in next year's presidential election.

In a bombshell first-round result, members of the Republicans Party placed Eric Ciotti – who has said he “shares” most of far-Right polemist Eric Zemmour's views – in first place with 25.6 per cent of the vote.

Valérie Pécresse, moderate head of the Ile de France regional council that oversees parts of Paris, came a close second on 25 per cent, meaning the pair will face off in next Saturday’s runoff.

Despite her second place in round one, Ms Pecresse is now seen as favourite as the three other candidates swiftly threw their support behind her.

Analysts had assumed that the likely final pair would be Michel Barnier, the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator, and Xavier Bertrand, head of the Hauts-de-France region in France’s North, who polls suggested had the best chance of reaching the presidential election run-off and beating Mr Macron.

But in the event, the LR party’s 140,000 card-carrying members – the only ones entitled to vote – plumped for Mr Ciotti, 56, who won 25.6 per cent of the vote, and Ms Pécresse, 54, just behind on 25 per cent.

Mr Barnier, 70, who had underwhelmed during a series of TV debates, came third on 23.9 per cent with Mr Bertrand,56, fourth on 22.4 per cent while Philippe Juvin, 57, a doctor, came last on 3.1 per cent.

Turnout was around 81 per cent.

The Republicans Party nominees during a TV debate ahead of Thursday’s first-round vote among party members – AFP

The winner of Saturday’s runoff will complete the field of candidates looking to take on the incumbent centrist Mr Macron – who has yet to officially announce his re-election bid – in April 2022.

Initially seen as a rank outsider, Mr Ciotti, MP and head of the powerful Alpes-Maritime LR federation, stood out via his hardline views on “authority, identity, liberty” during several TV debates dominated by immigration and security.

His claim to fame during debates was to be the “only candidate who didn’t vote for Macron” in his runoff versus far-Right rival Marine Le Pen in 2017.

Aping the far-Right, Mr Ciotti has warned against a “war of civilisation” if France fails to tackle immigration and Islamism, and has called for national preference when it comes to jobs and employment, as well as a French Guantanamo for convicted terrorists who have served prison time and are released but still pose a threat to national security.

An economic liberal, he is calling for an “end to inheritance tax”, a flat tax on businesses of just 15 per cent and wants to cut 250,000 civil servant posts.

Speaking after the vote, he said: “I am the only candidate who can bring about the rally of all Right-wing voters from wherever they come, just like Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.”

Ms Pécresse, meanwhile, is a former higher education and budget minister in the Sarkozy administration.

Calling herself “La Dame de faire”, a play on words with “Iron Lady” and the “Lady who gets things done”, she says she wants to “restore French pride”. The mother of three did well in debates, coming across as pugnacious and down-to-earth.

Speaking afterwards, the mother of three said: “I carry an unabashedly Right-wing project as France has no time to lose”.

“I am the only one who can beat Emmanuel Macron. I am a woman who wins and who acts. Have the audacity to choose a free woman who is passionate about France.”

Valerie Pecresse

Ms Pécresse also talks tough on immigration and security, calling for harsher rules on nationality and welfare and sending the army into no-go zones in the banlieues, or suburbs. She wants to cut 200,000 state sector jobs while raising the wage of the remainder. Education would be a priority.

Whoever the Republicans field, their champion faces an uphill struggle beating far-Right rivals Marine Le Pen and Mr Zemmour, both of whom, current polls suggest, stand a far higher chance of reaching the runoff next April against Mr Macron who remains firm favourite.

However, analysts say the polls could change considerably once LR has picked its candidate.

Mr Ciotti on Thursday insisted that a vote for Ms Le Pen, just like her father before her, would only perpetuate “life insurance for the Socialist and Macronist system in place for too long in our country”.

Mr Zemmour was, he added, “lucid” about the state of France but his lugubrious discourse on French decline lacked the “hope” the French needed to get going. Mr Zemmour fired off a Tweet to “dear Eric” saying he was “happy to see that so many of our ideas shared by LR militants”.

Ms Le Pen said the result suggested the Republicans remained deeply divided over which way to jump – to the centre or much further Right.

There is speculation that Mr Macron may launch his re-election campaign on January 19 during a speech to the European Parliament to lay out the priorities of France's rotating presidency of the European Union.

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