The members of the center-right party The Republicans (LR) agreed on 25 September that their presidential candidate would be elected in an internal ballot on 4 December. While the decision could help the candidacy of former Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand, the race to decide the contender is far from settled. Meanwhile, the rise of far-right polemist Eric Zemmour could be both a blessing and a curse for the center-right – and by extension, for President Emmanuel Macron.
While Bertrand had previously signaled that he would not participate in an open primary, the president of the Hauts-de-France region suggested before last weekend's party conference that he might be willing to partake in an internal ballot. His words came on the heels of an opinion poll commissioned by the LR leadership showing him as the candidate best placed to challenge the Emmanuel Macron-Marine Le Pen duopoly.
Bertrand is expected to announce on the evening of 30 September whether he will take part in the internal ballot. If he confirms his participation, he will hope to rise in the polls enough to force the other candidates to withdraw from the contest and be confirmed as the party's torchbearer even before the December ballot. LR leader Christian Jacob, who allegedly favors the candidacy of Bertrand, seems to support such a strategy. However, other center-right contenders such as Valerie Pecresse or Michel Barnier will probably continue to put up a fight, given the result of an internal party ballot is rather unpredictable. For example, Barnier's recent tough discourse on immigration issues aims to galvanize LR members, which tend to be more to the right than the average French center-right voter.
The Z factor
In the meantime, the whole right has been rattled in the last days by the rise of far-right writer Eric Zemmour in opinion polls. The intense media exposure of the radical polemist seems to be helping him to steal votes away from the whole right-wing spectrum, including from Marine Le Pen. A Harris Interactive survey published on 28 September put him at 13-14%, on par with Bertrand and ahead of Pecresse and Barnier. More importantly, if Zemmour were to run, Le Pen's score would drop to 16%. In that scenario, Bertrand – were he to be chosen as the center-right's candidate – would have a shot at getting into the second round (Macron is currently leading the race in all opinion polls).
It is still too soon to determine whether Zemmour's momentum has legs, given the writer has not even confirmed his candidacy yet. Moreover, given the explosion of the French party system in 2017 and the elevated electoral volatility, considerable shifts in support for the different candidates can still materialize before the April election. However, the arrival of Zemmour has the potential to shake up the race.
The key factors to watch are whether Macron can maintain his lead in the polls and the standing of his potential opponents in a runoff. The logic is simple: the more radical the second-round contender (e.g., Le Pen or even Zemmour), the better Macron's prospects of winning the election. As an example, some polls have shown that Bertrand would be in a position to defeat the incumbent president in a runoff.