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French Conservatives Fear Populist Wave That Carried Trump Will Foreshadow Primary


France's conservative party will select a candidate for president tomorrow. The country's presidential election will be held next spring. France has mainstream parties, kind of like the United States, one on the left, one on the right. But the deep unpopularity of Francois Hollande's Socialist Party makes the conservative primary especially crucial. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley explains why.




ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Seven candidates, six men and one woman, faced off in their last live televised debate on Thursday evening. From the very first question, Donald Trump's upset victory was a major theme.



BEARDSLEY: "Anti-elite movements elected Trump and pushed through Brexit," said the moderator. "What will be the effects of this on France?"



BEARDSLEY: While one candidate pointed out that it wasn't Trump who invaded Iraq and sowed chaos in the Middle East, the others spent the evening assuring voters they stood as a barrier to the kind of raw populism that got Trump elected. France has its own far-right party, the National Front.

Its leader, Marine Le Pen, shares the same anti-immigration, anti-globalization platform as Trump. Now many French fear she stands a real chance at becoming president. Thierry Arnaud is the chief political analyst at BFMTV News.

THIERRY ARNAUD: She is a very popular politician. She leads a party that is, by far, the biggest party for the French working class. So her electoral base is incredibly strong, solid. And she's almost guaranteed something around 25 percent of the votes in the first round of the French presidential election. And that is extremely tough to beat.

BEARDSLEY: The French elect a president in two stages. Voters often use the first round to cast a protest vote and vote tactically in the second-round runoff. Political science professor Corinne Mellul says, with the socialists out of the picture, tomorrow's vote will be important to the right and the left.

CORINNE MELLUL: Considering that the left has virtually no chance - we don't even know if Hollande is going to run again or not - it's very important who the right-wing nominee or center-right nominee is going to be 'cause that candidate will probably be facing Marine Le Pen in the second round.

BEARDSLEY: Alain Juppe is leading in the polls. He's a former foreign and prime minister and the current mayor of Bordeaux. He's seen as a moderate unifier. In second place is former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. After losing his re-election bid to Hollande in 2012, Sarkozy vowed he would leave politics. But now he's back.


NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In Thursday's debate, Sarkozy said only he had the authority, energy and experience to lead France. But polls show Sarkozy is very divisive. Most French people feel he had his chance while he was president for five years. And they don't want him back. Cecile Alduy, author of a book on Marine Le Pen, says the conservatives will have to choose carefully tomorrow if they want to be sure of beating the National Front candidate next May.

CECILE ALDUY: I think if Alain Juppe, who is right now the frontrunner, wins the primaries, there will be a rallying around him against Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election. And she will not get elected.

BEARDSLEY: But if Sarkozy wins the primary, she says, it will be more difficult for people on the left to vote for him. And the result will be much more up in the air. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.