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Why third position is a good place for these two

Lying behind by Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy in the opinion polls, Bruno Le Maire and François Fillon are battling for third place in the Républicains’ election for presidential candidate.Michelle de la Rosa Lewis explains why it could still be important

With a record breaking 44% abstention in the 2012 general elections, French voters are in desperate need of inspiring candidates who will seduce them to the ballot box. While on the other side of the Pyrenees, Podemos and Ciudadanos have shaken up the Spanish political scene, the picture in France has remained largely unchanged in ten years and similar winds of change will certainly not come from Les Républicans as much as their messages say otherwise.

The closest they have to a new generation is Bruno Le Maire. The MP for the northern Eure department officially announced his candidature for the party’s presidential primary elections in February, giving his inaugural speech to almost 2000 fans in March.

He is by far the youngest candidate, soon to be 47 years old, compared to François Fillon (62), Alain Juppé (69) and Nicolas Sarkozy (61).

Capitalising on his age, Bruno Le Maire has disposed of his formal vest and tie. It’s not quite the dreadlocks of Podemos, but he hopes his wardrobe will soften the image of an out of touch ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration) elite school pupil.

The often criticised yet cherished ENA is a Parisian elite school which has given France many of its political protagonists such as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac, Ségolène Royal, François Hollande and many others. Notable non-ENA figures are  Nicolas Sarkozy, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen.

Le Maire entered politics under the wings of Dominique de Villepin in 1998, and worked as his cabinet director when Villepin became Prime Minister. In 2007 he became the agriculture minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, while also winning his first election as MP for the Eure department, which he describes as “his most glorious victory”.

In November 2014 he obtained nearly 30% of the votes in the UMP (the old LR) leadership vote. From this moment, he was considered a serious candidate for the top role.

He is quite the author with a total of eight books, and not all on politics. In 2012 he published a novel Musique Absolue: une répétition avec Carlos Kleiber where he presented the life of  German conductor Carlos Kleiber via an imaginary character. His most recent book Ne vous résignez pas! is a call for novelty: “Don’t resign to those politicians who, for thirty years, propose the same idea, the same speeches when what you really want is new blood!”

Amongst his propositions: economic flexibility. Firstly, renewing a temporary CDD work contract would no longer be limited before turning into a CDI, a permanent work contract. Secondly, an “e-contract” would be put in place for startups, allowing for work contracts that last only a few weeks or even a few hours. Finally, 100,000 civil servant posts would disappear every year. Furthermore, he proposes to privatise Pole Emploi and turn the pension scheme into a point system. Fillon stated to BFMTV: he is very talented, but in general, the project that he proposes to the French consists of saying: kick out all those which have already governed”.

 While 2007 was Le Maire’s “most glorious victory”, it was also a pretty important year for François Fillon - he became prime minister. The strained relationship between him and President Sarkozy often made headlines but nonetheless he lasted throughout Sarkozy’s tenure until 2012.

Carl Meeus stated in his collaborative book Les grands duels qui ont fait la France (The great duels which built France): “During five years in Matignon… François Fillon was publicly humiliated… and endured the sarcasm of an omnipresent President, who complained about a prime minister too faint-hearted, stuck behind his desk, who only thought about protecting himself.”

In the shadow of Sarkozy, Fillon was considered to be prudent, methodological, and reserved, never openly ambitious. His personal traits are much more similar to his current yet less dramatic rival, Bruno Le Maire.

Both politicians consider themselves to have a centrist stance. Fillon’s ability to capture the attention of the centrist voters is thought to be why Sarkozy wanted him on the frontline in the first place. Former university lecturer and politician Michel Dusclaud shared a trip to America with François Fillon who was then president of the defence commission.

“Fillon could manage a funeral service business! He is a sad person… but he is very competent and serious, very professional, however he is not kind,” he said.

François Fillon had an ambitious plan to win the primary elections. Presented as a “radical rupture”, he proposes to finish with the 35-hour week, reduce public expenses by a colossal 110 billion euros in five years, increase the pension age to 65, and create a unique work contract that would regroup diverse contracts under one format.

Fuelled by the regional results obtained by the Front National, which he considers as his “last advertisement before 2017”, his plans would be hard hitting, especially on the economy. “The distress of the French people is linked to a desperate lack of growth, work, security and national confidence. Everything is blocked. However I do believe that with audacious reforms, France could even become the first power in Europe”. 

His proposals were presented in his most recent book, Faire, last October, which had an incredible success in the bookshops. The French are interested and he does have some credit despite his role in the fiasco that was the UMP’s first leadership election after Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential election defeat. Following a vote cast within the party, Jean François Copé came out on top by just 98 votes. This wafer thin victory was immediately contested by Fillon claiming that three overseas territories had not been included in the polls. He claimed that had they been, he would have won by 26 votes.

Three days later, he stepped down and said he no longer wanted the top job. But the damage had already been done. The media had a field day with such an open battle for power and it was clear that there was no natural successor after Sarkozy. The party was divided.

Four years on and the UMP, under a new name, Les Républicains, has been stitching its wounds back together.

However, as the party leader, the man doing the stitching, Nicolas Sarkozy, is under investigation for the fraudulent financing and overspending of his 2012 election campaign, his presidential comeback bid looks less certain: Good news for François Fillon and Bruno Le Maire - whoever ends up in third place.

Jefferson Desport, political journalist at SudOuest, notes, “they have a common point-to exist and resist the duel between Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy. Their challenge is to get themselves heard”.

If Bruno Le Maire does not manage the challenge, he has time on his side. Unlike Fillon or Juppé. For him the 2017 election could be a practise run for 2022. Either way, both Bruno Le Maire and François Fillon are offering the idea of unprecedented change: a speech already weary and repetitive but which feeds the flame of hope.

With this message, their goal is to make the primary elections a three legged race and not a one-on-one duel.

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