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Caught Between Macron and the Far Right, French Conservatives Pick 2022 Candidate

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France’s conservative Les Republicains choose their presidential nominee in an internal party vote December 1-4, hoping to avoid the squabbles and scandals that scuppered their Elysee Palace run five years ago. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the five candidates battling to represent a diminished conservative party that finds itself squeezed between President Emmanuel Macron and his challengers on the far right.

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The spectre of 2017

When France’s conservatives last picked a presidential candidate in the autumn of 2016, the party primary was described as a dress rehearsal for the following year’s Elysee Palace race. With the ruling Socialists in the doldrums, whoever emerged victorious on the right was seen as a shoe-in for the presidency. But nothing went according to plan.

One by one, the party’s champions – Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppe, Francois Fillon – fell by the wayside, victim to scandal, intrigue and a yearning for change. Crippled by a “fake job” fracas involving his wife Penelope, Fillon was eventually knocked out in the first round, falling behind centrist upstart Macron and the far right’s Marine Le Pen. Incredibly, Les Republicains had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Once the presidential frontrunner, the 2017 conservative nominee Francois Fillon was hobbled by a “fake job” scandal involving his wife Penelope. (C) Lionel Bonaventure, AFP

Down, but not out

Five years on, France’s main conservative party is a diminished force, squeezed between an increasingly right-leaning President Macron and a new dark horse on the far right: the as-yet-undeclared agitator Eric Zemmour, who has eaten into Le Pen’s base and is luring many conservatives too. But with left-wing parties still in disarray, Les Republicains remain the only mainstream force Macron is still wary of – and their choice of presidential nominee will be closely watched at the Elysee.

Mindful of the bitter wrangling that wrecked the party’s bid in 2017, the conservatives have opted for an internal vote by party members this time instead of open primaries, and have urged the five contenders to refrain from mudslinging. This has resulted in polite and somewhat sedate debates in which the would-be nominees often struggled for disagreements. With Macron’s economic policies increasingly encroaching on conservative terrain, all five contenders have doubled down on security and immigration instead – with some pushing deep into far-right territory.

Les Republicains’ presidential hopefuls, from left to right: Eric Ciotti, Valerie Pecresse, Michel Barnier, Philippe Juvin and Xavier Bertrand. (C) Thomas Samson, AFP

The frontrunners

Having quit Les Republicains amid the anti-establishment wave that upended French politics in 2017, Xavier Bertrand repeatedly stated he would go it alone and take no part in primaries this year. But when the party failed to rally behind him, the head of the northern Hauts-de-France region was forced to eat his hat, renew his membership, and submit to a vote after all. A former health and labour minister, the 56-year-old boasts the best polling numbers among the five candidates. Consecutive wins in his battleground region, a key target of Le Pen’s National Rally party, have allowed him to portray himself as a rampart against the far right.

Like his rivals, Bertrand has struck a pro-business line, promising tax breaks for industry, massive investment in infrastructure projects, an end to the 35-hour work week and an increase in the legal retirement age (up to 64, from the current 62). A champion of nuclear power, he wants to build 10 new reactors and halt the construction of wind turbines, which he routinely bashes as “eyesores” that wreck France’s landscape. He also plans to introduce a minimum 50-year prison sentence for terrorism-related crimes and allow prosecutors to rule in lieu of judges for lesser offences to speed up the judicial process.

Xavier Bertrand, 56, was hoping to clinch the party nomination without a contest. (C) Ludovic Marin, AFP

Another recent returnee, Valerie Pecresse has also been forced to eat humble pie, returning to the fold after she quit Les Republicains and created her own movement in 2019. Like Bertrand, she was recently buoyed by a comfortable re-election as head of the Paris region, a territory previously governed by the left and now coveted by Macron’s party. Pecresse, 54, served as government spokesperson, as well as budget and higher education minister, under former president Sarkozy. Seen as a moderate conservative, she has recently toughened her discourse on immigration – in line with the rest of the party.

The only woman in the race, Pecresse has put family support at the heart of her platform, promising to increase benefits for households with two or more children and boost tax relief for homecare jobs. She plans to increase wages by slashing tax and pension contributions while extending work hours and hiking the legal retirement age to 65. She also wants to cut 150,000 civil servant jobs. Other proposals include a carbon tax for imports from outside the EU, boosting both nuclear power and wind turbines (in the latter case, with the public’s consent), and the expulsion of foreign nationals suspected of radical Islamist activities.

Valerie Pecresse, 54, is the head of the Paris region, France’s most populous. (C) Francois Nascimbeni, AFP

The dark horse: Monsieur Brexit

Anglophones accustomed to hearing about the EU’s suave, articulate and always polite former chief Brexit negotiator might be surprised to hear that Michel Barnier is seldom seen by his French compatriots as a frontrunner in the race for the Elysee. With his multiple ministerial portfolios, two stints as EU commissioner, and extensive knowledge of both the French and European parliaments, the 70-year-old Savoyard has more experience – and certainly more international recognition – than his four contenders put together. But his mild manner and continental postings have long kept him out of the French melee. Still, his steadfast loyalty to the party could help him spring a surprise when members cast their ballots.

Those who have followed the Brexit saga will be equally surprised to hear Barnier stick to a distinctly Eurosceptic line since he declared his presidential candidacy. Having negotiated the terms of Britain’s gruelling EU divorce, the veteran diplomat says he understands the people’s exasperation with a European bureaucracy seen as both remote and encroaching. Striking a Gaullist tone, Barnier has promised to restore the French state’s sovereign powers in matters of immigration, curbing entries and calling a referendum to shield France from the interference of EU courts. Like his rivals, he plans to cut taxes, increase working hours and push back the retirement age. Unlike them, however, he plans to raise wages for health and education workers exhausted by the pandemic while also doubling the number of judges to ease the pressure on an overworked judiciary.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, has sounded distinctly Eurosceptic on the campaign trail. (C) Sebastien Salom-Gomis, AFP

The outsiders

While all five candidates have struck a hard line on immigration, no one has pushed further than Eric Ciotti, a party stalwart and lawmaker from the Alpes Maritimes area around Nice, whose policies straddle the increasingly blurred line between right and far right. Having already refused to back Macron against Le Pen in the 2017 run-off, the 56-year-old has openly said he would rather vote for Zemmour – an apologist for the Nazi-allied Vichy regime – than the incumbent president. He also espouses the far right’s widely debunked “Great Replacement” theory, according to which elites are plotting to replace French nationals of white stock with immigrants.

Ciotti plans to axe 250,000 civil servant jobs, end progressive taxation, and have people work 39 hours per week while earning a 38-hour wage. He also plans to pull France out of the visa-free Schengen Area and replace citizenship by birth with citizenship by bloodline. Other policies include tougher sentencing for those who target police, a 40,000-person increase in prison capacity and the establishment of a “French Guantanamo” to detain people flagged by law enforcement as potential threats to national security.

Eric Ciotti, 56, has said he would choose the far right over Macron. AFP

The other outsider, 57-year-old Philippe Juvin, is the least-known candidate vying for the conservative nomination. A doctor and head of the emergency room at the George Pompidou hospital in Paris, he first made a name for himself during the Covid-19 crisis, making frequent appearances on French television. A long-time mayor of La Garenne-Colombes, northwest of the capital, he presents himself as the “candidate of public services” in a field where all others plan to slash public sector jobs.

Juvin’s proposals include the establishment of a municipal police force in all towns with a population of 10,000 or more; boosting the number of medical students to help areas suffering from a shortage of doctors; and reaching 50 percent renewable energy by 2050, notably through the construction of offshore wind farms. But his economic policies, featuring tax breaks and longer work hours, bring him closer in line with his rivals. So does his stance on immigration, which includes a suspension of the Schengen accords and France’s withdrawal from EU jurisdiction with the introduction of national limits on immigration.

Philippe Juvin, 57, heads the emergency room at the George Pompidou hospital in Paris. (C) Thomas Samson, AFP

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Source: france24.com

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World at ‘inflection Point’ Warns Biden, Raising Alarm at Democracy Summit

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Democracy faces “sustained and alarming challenges” worldwide, US President Joe Biden said Thursday at the opening of a virtual summit on democracy with representatives from some 100 countries.

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Biden said trends were “largely pointing in the wrong direction” and that democracy needed “champions.”

“We stand at an inflection point,” he said. “Will we allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked?”

The two-day event, held by video link due to the coronavirus pandemic, was billed by the White House as US leadership in an existential struggle between democracies and powerful autocracies or dictatorships.

“Make no mistake, we’re at a moment of democratic reckoning,” said Uzra Zeya, the US under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights. “Countries in virtually every region of the world have experienced degrees of democratic backsliding.”

The summit featured opening remarks from Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with representatives from some 100 governments, as well as NGOs, private businesses, philanthropical organisations and legislatures attending.

China, Russia not invited

The conference is a test of Biden’s assertion, made in his first foreign policy address in February, that he would return the US to global leadership to face down authoritarian forces led by China and Russia.

Both countries were not invited to this week’s event, which coincides with questions about the strength of America’s democracy. Biden is struggling to pass his agenda through a polarised Congress following the turbulent and disruptive Trump presidency.

Amid rising US-China tensions, the Biden administration’s decision to invite Taiwan has irked Beijing.

China considers Taiwan, a democratically ruled island, part of its territory.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the invitation of Taiwan showed the US was only using democracy as “cover and a tool for it to advance its geopolitical objectives, oppress other countries, divide the world and serve its own interests.”

‘Lip service’

Washington used the run-up to the summit to announce sanctions against officials in Iran, Syria and Uganda it accuses of oppressing their populations, and against people it accuses of being tied to corruption and criminal gangs in Kosovo and Central America.

US officials hope to win support during the meetings for global initiatives, such as use of technology to enhance privacy or circumvent censorship, and for countries to make specific public commitments to improve their democracies before an in-person summit planned for late 2022.

Annie Boyajian, director of advocacy at non-profit Freedom House, said the event had the potential to push struggling democracies to do better and to spur coordination between democratic governments.

“But, a full assessment won’t be possible until we know what commitments there are and how they are implemented in the year ahead,” Boyajian said.

Zeya at the State Department said civil society would help hold the countries, including the United States, accountable. Zeya declined to say whether Washington would disinvite leaders who did not fulfill their pledges.

Human Rights Watch’s Washington director Sarah Holewinski said making the invitation to the 2022 summit dependent on delivering on commitments was the only way to get nations to step up.

Otherwise, Holewinski said, some “will only pay lip service to human rights and make commitments they never intend to keep.”

“They shouldn’t get invited back,” she said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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Original Source: france24.com

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Top US Scientist Fauci: Omicron ‘almost Certainly Not More Severe’ Than Delta Variant

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Top US scientist Anthony Fauci said Tuesday that while it would take weeks to judge the severity of the new Covid-19 variant Omicron, early indications suggested it was not worse than prior strains, and possibly milder.Read More

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Suspected Member of Khashoggi Hit Squad Arrested at Paris Airport

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French police Tuesday arrested at Paris’s main airport a suspected member of the team that murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, sources said.Read More

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