With France’s presidential election just months away, parties are picking their candidates in US-style primaries.
Today, Sunday, voters are choosing the centre-right’s nominee, with those on the French Caribbean island of Martinique among the first to cast their ballots.
The race is hard to call with former Prime Minister Alain Juppé recently losing most or all of his early lead in opinion polls.
For months, voter surveys had tipped Juppé, currently mayor of Bordeaux, as a future president, suggesting that if he won the nomination of his conservative Republicans party, he could beat far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in next May’s decisive presidential poll.
The centrist’s lead has, however, been eroded by two party rivals to his right – ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, eager to make a comeback with a campaign emphasising law and order and François Fillon, who served as Sarkozy’s prime minister from 2007-2012.
Enjoying a late surge, Fillon was widely judged the winner of last week’s final TV debate.
“I can sense a surprise coming,” he told supporters at a rally on Friday in Paris. He urged them to “shake up” the primaries, winning wide applause and shouts of “Fillon for president” from a crowd of over 3,000.
Anyone can vote in the primary, in which there are seven candidates, which opens an already unpredictable contest to tactical participation by left-leaning and far-right voters.
Under unpopular President François Hollande, France’s ruling Socialists are deeply divided and seen as unlikely to get past the presidential election’s first round next April. That would clear the way for whoever clinches the conservative nomination to face Le Pen in the deciding vote.
After Britain’s shock “Brexit” vote in June and this month’s election of Donald Trump as US president, the French election next spring will be the next test of strength between weakened mainstream political forces and rising populist insurgents.