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Valerie Pecresse and Eric Ciotti vie for French right-wing presidential nomination

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By Lauren Chadwick
Valérie Pécresse, left, and Eric Ciotti, right
Valérie Pécresse, left, and Eric Ciotti, right   -   Copyright  Ludovic Marin, Pool; David Niviere, Pool via AP Photo

Two candidates emerged from the first round of voting as France's main right-wing "Les Républicains" party picks its presidential candidate.

Eric Ciotti, an MP from Nice, and Valérie Pécresse, president of the Ile-de-France region, will vie for the party's nomination on Saturday, party president Christian Jacob announced.

Around 113,000 party members voted in the presidential congress that saw five candidates compete for the nomination.

Eric Ciotti, who was the most right-wing of all the candidates, received the most votes in the first round, with 25.59%.

Ciotti has said that in a race between incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and far-right tv pundit Eric Zemmour, Ciotti would vote for Zemmour. He believes there is a "war of civilisations" that threatens "Jewish-Christian" civilisation.

Valérie Pécresse came in as a close second with 25% of the vote.

She, like the other candidates, had taken a tough stance on immigration, calling to end "automatic naturalisation" at 18 and to issue quotas for countries. She would also like to reduce public spending and government bureaucracy.

The success of Ciotti in the first round "clearly reflects a strong sort of shift in political opinion in France and certainly amongst the rank and file members of the Républicains towards the right or the far right," said Douglas Webber, emeritus professor of political science at the INSEAD business school.

The three other candidates in the first round, Xavier Bertrand, Michel Barnier and Philippe Juvin called on party members to support Pécresse.

Webber says Pécresse is likely to become the candidate but "will have a very difficult task trying to assemble a large enough number of voters to qualify for the second round."

Many of the centre-leaning Républicain voters are likely to support President Emmanuel Macron, while the more right-wing voters could support far-right candidates Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour, he added.**

The party had opted for a closed party congress instead of an open political primary.

"Les Républicains" trace their political origins back to Charles de Gaulle, and previous incarnations of the party counted the likes of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy among France's presidents. But they have struggled to recast their identity since a collapse in their vote at the 2017 election.

"I think the principal challenge of the candidate of Les Républicains in the presidential elections is to simultaneously maximise support towards the right and towards the centre because, regardless of the fact that political opinion in France is tending more and more towards the extreme right, the candidate of Les Républicains can't possibly win unless she also appeals to a large number of centrist voters," said Webber.